By Efrén Paredes, Jr.
After publicly making repeated warnings about the danger of feeding people in crowded prison dining halls at tables less than two feet apart during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lakeland Correctional Facility (LCF) in Coldwater, Michigan, where I am presently incarcerated, finally ended the pernicious practice of feeding people in the dining hall this morning.
The previous seating practice did not comport with common sense or the CDC social distancing guidelines of keeping people separated by a distance of at least six feet to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. It also put hundreds of lives dangerously at risk of becoming infected with the lethal contagion for weeks.
During the past month I sent multiple messages to Governor Whitmer, Lt. Governor Gilchrist, Attorney General Nessel, MDOC officials, dozens of legislators, as well as a number of progressive groups and members of the TV, radio, and print media to raise awareness about this issue.
I also discussed the issue with two United Nations podcast producers and asked family members and friends to share my writings about the subject on my blog and across every available social media platform.
LCF changed course and prudently made the decision to begin delivering meals to people in their housing units. The choice to keep everyone out of the dining hall altogether will immensely help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in that space.
The unprecedented move comes on the heels of the first round of robust COVID-19 testing results at the prison which returned yesterday from tests conducted two days ago. Out of 266 administered tests 208 of them — a stunning 78% — returned positive for the disease. The previous day 80 out of 115 people tested positive.
It was a number many were unprepared to receive, including the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), which allowed prisons to continue using dining halls to feed people sitting closely together for weeks despite an abundance of data and scientific evidence counseling against the practice.
The unfortunate thing is that hundreds of incarcerated people contracted COVID-19 at the prison, and several.have died, due to gross negligence and mismanagement. Who the blame for these decisions is assigned to remains unknown. LCF disavows itself of all blame claiming that all decision making during this crisis has come from MDOC’s Central Office.
LCF now leads the state as the prison with the largest number of deaths from COVID-19 and incarcerated people who have contracted the deadly disease. While many incarcerated people are breathing a sigh of relief this morning at LCF, the one sentiment reverberating around the prison is, “Why did it have to take so long?”
It’s a tough pill to swallow for the hundreds of people who have been infected with COVID-19, many who could potentially die due to the large elderly demographic and people with underlying comorbidities here. As I told people this morning, however, “We have to take this experience a moment at a time. This isn’t the time to focus on the past.”
We have to focus on the future and the wellness of all the people who have been infected with the contagion — both incarcerated people and staff — and healing everyone here who carry the scars of being traumatized by the events of the last month. Many people will have to still recover over the next several weeks.
One thing the MDOC or Health Care Services could do during this time to help incarcerated people is provide them a daily multivitamin and Vitamin C to help boost their immune systems up. Many incarcerated people can’t afford these items and Vitamin C has been out-of-stock when some people have tried to order it in the prisoner store during the past month.
This could be very helpful to people as they battle COVID-19, which statistically most incarcerated people at LCF are slated to experience, based on the latest testing results. After all the men have endured the past month, it’s the least that can be done as an act of compassion.
Regardless of what anyone thinks, lives were saved today by LCF’s decision to finally end feeding people in crowded dining halls. It won’t undo the damage already done, but it will make a tremendous difference moving forward.
It’s been an emotionally exhausting month arriving at this moment, but the many sleepless nights staying up writing and reaching out to people around the nation was worth it. It is a reminder that human rights and protecting life transcends our daily struggles.
In other countries around the world evidence is emerging of people who contracted and overcame COVID-19 who are being reinfected once again. The same will happen in Michigan as well because of the overcrowded living conditions of prisons.
If there is any silver lining in this experience it is that at least the next time we will be better prepared to battle the subsequent wave of the virus and we won’t have to play catch-up like we have been this time around because of a late response.
I am awaiting the results of the COVID-19 test I took yesterday which may be released as early as today. With the recent data available regarding testing in the preceding days, it means I have a 78% chance that I have contracted the disease.
If I test positive I will wage an aggressive battle against the disease with an unwavering determination to defeat it. Anyone who knows me knows I have never surrendered to any struggle I have endured during 31 years of incarceration, and I won’t begin now. When I receive the test results I will announce them in the public sphere.
Please keep every incarcerated person and prison staff member infected with COVID-19 in your thoughts and prayers — including their family members. We remain hopeful for as many of their full recoveries as possible.
I also ask that you pray for all those who have lost family members who have succumbed to the deadly virus. #SMPR #AloneTogether #StayHomeStayStrong
(Efrén Paredes, Jr. is a blogger, thought leader, and social justice changemaker. His ongoing series about the COVID-19 crisis in Michigan prisons can be read at http://fb.com/Free.Efren.)