‘Just kind of bracing for the worst possible scenario’: Michigan inmates worry as omicron spreads

The highly contagious omicron variant continues to spread inside Michigan’s prisons, as state officials employ strategies like vaccination and testing. But some inmates fear catching the virus is inevitable. 

Mallorie Wilson-Strat is serving a life sentence at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility since her conviction in 2012.

Despite being vaccinated and boosted, she’s contracted COVID-19 twice in the last two years.

“There is a huge outbreak again. I got COVID for the second time. And we were put into a condemned building that wasn’t opened, and they had to reopen it because of how many people were, you know, had the COVID,” Wilson-Strat says.

In the last week of January about 5,500 Michigan prisoners had COVID-19. That’s more than 15%  of people behind bars.

“There is a huge outbreak again. I got COVID for the second time. And we were put into a condemned building that wasn’t opened, and they had to reopen it because of how many people were, you know, had the COVID,” Mallorie Wilson-Strat, an inmate at Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility

“We’re also seeing about 75 employees test positive per day around the state. So it’s not the worst that’s ever been in terms of prisoners. But we’ve not seen numbers like this for our staff, throughout the pandemic,” says Chris Gautz, the spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections. He says 63% of inmates have had at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“And about a third of all our prisoners have also received the booster shots. So we’re strongly encouraging that and every day, we see more and more prisoners wanting to take part in that,” Gautz says.

Although the inmate vaccination rate is roughly on par to the rate for all Michigan adults, prison staff are not required to get the shots and the state isn’t keeping track of employee vaccinations.

While masks are required for inmates and staff, Wilson-Strat says the state gave her masks made out of thin cotton that she says was “basically like a sheet.” That’s despite the CDC recommending stronger masks like N95s to prevent omicron infections.

“It looks like a doctor’s mask, but it’s so thin. They don’t work,” Wilson-Strat says. “When I was in the COVID unit, they started telling us that we had to double up our masks, because of how thin they were.”

A photo of Natasha Bagdasarian wearing a black top standing against a gray background.
Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian says the state is working with prison officials to mitigate COVID-19 outbreaks.

Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian is Michigan’s Chief Medical Executive. She says they’re working with prison officials to mitigate COVID-19 outbreaks.

“The discussion around masks and upgraded masks has now led to an initiative and plans to distribute N95 masks, but that’s only one layer. And that has to be combined with other mitigation strategies,” Bagdasarian says.

Between 30,000 and 40,000 inmates and staff get tested for COVID-19 every week. Gautz says that’s helped keep the current outbreaks at bay.

“We’ve done more than 1.5 million tests since the beginning of the pandemic, that includes both prisoners and staff. We’ve tested more prisoners than states like California or Texas that have three times or more the size of the prison population that we have here in Michigan,” Gautz says.

In 2019, just over 38,000 people were incarcerated in Michigan prisons. Today that number has dropped to a little more than 33,000.

While there are fewer people incarcerated, Efren Paredes Jr, an inmate at the Oaks Correctional Facility in Manistee , says overcrowding is still a problem.

“We’re eating cafeteria style in the dining halls with people at tables that are 3 feet by 5. It makes it impossible for people to social distance or safely eat in those areas with that environment,” Paredes Jr. says.

Gautz says they are keeping people separated when they can by having inmates do activities like meals and classes with their own designated housing units.

Paredes Jr. is both vaccinated and boosted and says he’s hoping that if he does contract COVID-19 for the second time, the vaccine will keep him from getting severe symptoms.

“The FDA director recently came on and CDC director came on television, and they said that it’s virtually impossible to not contract this, this omicron variant at some point in the future, so I’m just kind of bracing for the worst possible scenario,” Paredes Jr. says.

As cases surge, many Michigan prisons have paused in-person visitations. Wilson-Strat hasn’t been able to see her 14-year-old daughter in two years.

“I love her very much. And she’s s my drive that gets me through each day. And parenting is just the blessing even though it may be challenging at times,” she says.

Wilson-Strat is desperate to get to know her daughter better, but it’s unclear when cases will drop enough for visitations to resume.

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  • Michelle Jokisch Polo
    As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community. Michelle is also the voice of WKAR's weekend news programs. Michelle joined WKAR in August 2020. Before joining WKAR, Michelle was the inclusion reporter at WGVU Public Media, covering stories of people at the intersections of racial justice immigration reform, criminal justice system reform, reproductive justice and trans and queer liberation. Michelle began her career as a journalist as the head reporter at El Vocero Hispano, the largest Hispanic newspaper in Michigan. Michelle has a master's degree from Grand Valley State University and a bachelor's degree from Calvin University.