As coronavirus cases surge in the nation’s prisons, correction officers and their union leaders are calling on state governors and the White House to take immediate action to protect the safety of both prisoners and corrections officers.
Three union leaders in Michigan, including the executive president of the Service Employees International Union [SEIU], Mary Kay Henry, held a morning press call on Friday on how the operating procedures and protocols being implemented by the Michigan Department of Corrections to stop the spread of COVID-19 may be coming up short.
The call comes on the heels of the death of a Michigan corrections officer Damon Burton on March 31, who worked in a facility in Detroit. More than 25 corrections officers throughout the state have now tested positive for COVID-19. Several of them have been hospitalized.
Byron Osborn, president of the Michigan Corrections Org (MCO), an affiliate with SEIU that represents approximately 6,000 state corrections officers and forensic security assistance in Michigan, said that the union can be a real asset to prison administration officials to stop the spread of COVID-19, but unfortunately, they have not accepted their input.
“Here in Michigan we’ve offered ourselves as a resource and a partner in addressing these concerns and we’re hopeful this message can be immediately received by state and federal administrations and we can be brought into the loop and help us all get through this crisis,” Osborn said.
Indeed, the MCO is one of 39 labor organizations to sign off on a resolution urging governors, the federal government and prison directors to take immediate action such as providing corrections officers with PPE, paid sick leave and hazard pay, among others. The resolution is available via https://bit.ly/2V4BMXQ
The group One Voice, founded by Andy Potter, also the executive director of MCO, recently conducted a survey of corrections officers across the country over two weeks to gauge the impact COVID-19 is having on prison facilities. 750 corrections officers responded, and only seven-percent said that their facility was very equipped to handle the current emergency.
In addition, 67 percent of the respondents said that they, nor their union or line staff have been invited to help with building new operating procedures or protocols since the onset of COVID-19.
When asked what conditions inside the facility are causing the greatest anxiety among corrections officers and staff, the top three answers were: lack of proactive testing, poor communication contributing to stress and uncertainty and the lack of PPE gear.
“These findings are devastating and why I believe there is a need for urgent action,” said Potter.
The lack of appropriate PPE gear was highlighted by LaRonda Velaga, a CO at Thumb Correctional Facility, who said she and her co-workers are being asked to wear masks of dubious quality for their entire 8-hour and sometimes 16-hour shifts.
“The masks are very thick, and there are threads sticking out and poking you but you’re told to leave them on. They’re actually made out of polyester material to make inmates’ uniforms,” said Velaga.
According to Osborn, because there is a shortage of PPE nationwide, the Michigan Department of Corrections has had to resort to prison labor to manufacture facel masks.
“The department didn’t have the resources to outfit 38,000 prisoners and approximately 8,000 corrections officers,” Osborn said. “So, what they did was have sewing factories that ran via prison labor, they put them into high gear, producing these basically home-made masks that are just made out of basic fabric that they would make prisoner uniforms out of.”
The union reached out to the international union to try to find a way to locate better PPE gear, which Osborn noted is no easy task because the union is competing with a variety of state agencies and hospitals to procure PPE. But, incredibly, the union was able locate a company in Michigan to produce the gear.
“We have secured a source, a private company that out of the goodness of its heart decided to stop their normal textile operation and produce masks for us and we have now secured a pipeline of surgical masks that we’re going to provide to our members,” Osborn said.
Corrections officers also face the challenge of what seems to be a lack of reliable testing for COVID-19. For example, Osborn explained that when corrections officers show up for work, they first have to stay in the lobby to let their temperature regulate and then they are tested with non-touch thermometers by whatever prison staff is available to take a temperature reading.
A correction officers’ temperature has to be below a certain threshold in order to be allowed entry. Then they are asked a series of questions in relation to whether or not they have had any recent symptoms that could be associated with the virus, and also if they had recently been anywhere that could be deemed outbreak areas.
“This is problematic for us because the temperature readings are wildly inaccurate with these over-the-counter devices being utilized which we believe puts staff and prisoners in jeopardy,” said Osborn.
The union leader elaborated further, saying the situation puts both staff and prisoners in jeopardy because, if a healthy corrections officer gets a reading above the threshold of 100.4 degrees but isn’t actually COVID-19 positive, that means a healthy corrections officer is being told to self-quarantine for two weeks, thereby putting more pressure on the remaining COs on a shift to keep the prison safe.
Potter said that in his 30 years of being in and around corrections he’s never seen a group of labor leaders coalesce as quickly as they have done to bring attention to the plight of corrections officers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Thirty-nine presidents and leaders and presidents across the U.S., from Alaska to North Carolina to New York to Michigan, 17 different states came together to say we need some help now, we need someone to pay attention to what’s going on now.”
Meanwhile, in New York, the Corrections Officers’ Benevolent Association is suing the Department of Corrections over the lack of protective gear and cleaning supplies.
The union’s president, Elias Husamudeen, was recently interviewed by NPR and asked by the host what specifically is the union asking for in the lawsuit.
Husamudeen said there a few things the union is asking for, such as the creation of a testing site on Rikers Island where, as of Friday, there are a total of 454 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
The union represents 10,000 corrections officers and to date a little over 200 members have been infected with the coronavirus.
The other ask is for the Department of Corrections to provide correction officers with PPE, masks, gloves and hand sanitizers.
According to Husamudeen, he’s hoping the lawsuit compels the city to creating a task force for dealing with the ongoing pandemic in the city’s prisons.
“Other agencies—the police department, everybody else—have established a task force to deal with this COVID-19. And the New York City Department of Correction commissioner says she doesn’t have the resources or the staffing to do it, which is insane,” Husamudeen told NPR.