Michigan COVID-19 in Detention

Background on Data | Federal | DOC | County Jails and ICE | Juvenile | Resources


Below you can find data on the Covid-19 outbreak in Michigan detention facilities. These include: four federal facilities, 31 prisons operated by the Michigan Department of Correction, county-level information about jails and ICE detainees, and juvenile centers.

Our case study is unique in that it brings together official information scattered across different websites, providing a comprehensive narrative and visual overview of the outbreak in all detention facilities in Michigan as well as highlighting the increased vulnerability of the incarcerated population and the staff members of these facilities to Covid-19 compared to the general population. Our study also shows the progression of the outbreak over time in different facilities, raising questions about the effectiveness of the current preventative measures.

Outbreak in Michigan

While Michigan has been one of the leading states in taking strict measures to combat the Covid-19 outbreak, such response has not reached its prison and jail populations. Compared to other states, Michigan is lagging in releasing people behind bars to mitigate the spread of the disease in detention facilities.


By mid-May, at least 2,389 people have tested positive for Covid-19 behind bars in Michigan. The Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) reported 2,235 cases, while 83 have tested positive in federal prisons, 69 in county jails and two in juvenile detention facilities across the state.

The largest outbreak has been taking place in state prisons. On March 22nd, MDOC had its first case among the imprisoned population, when someone from the Kinross Correctional Facility tested positive after being transferred to a nearby hospital. By May 12th, seven weeks later, 17 state prisons out of 31 reported 2,235 confirmed cases among the imprisoned population and 327 confirmed cases among staff.

Due to the lack of adequate prevention measures, protective equipment and the inability to physically distance, Covid-19 has spread faster among the imprisoned population than it has among the rest of the population, resulting in much higher infection and death rates inside prisons than outside.

Graph 1.1

Data sources: for general public infection rates, see https://www.michigan.gov/Coronavirus; for prison population rates, see Michigan Department of Corrections. Table: World Peace Foundation 2020.

Graph 1.2

Data sources: for general public infection rates, see https://www.michigan.gov/Coronavirus; for prison population rates, see Michigan Department of Corrections. Table: World Peace Foundation 2020.


By May 12th, 2020, 60 people died from Covid-19 behind bars in Michigan.

  • 55 have died in MDOC prisons – five in Charles E. Egeler Reception and Guidance Center, two in the Detroit Reentry Center, two in the Duane Waters Health Center, one in the G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility, two in the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility, 20 in the Lakeland Correctional Facility, five in the Macomb Correctional Facility, ten in the Parnall Correctional Facility, three in the Thumb Correctional Facility, four in the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility and one in the Woodland Center Correctional Facility.
  • 3 have died in the Milan FCI federal facility.
  • Jails and other detention centers are not consistently reporting on positive cases or deaths from Covid-19. We have gathered most available data from media reports and official sites.

On May 7th, Michigan ranked highest in the US for deaths of people from Covid-19 in prison, and third in terms of number of confirmed cases among the imprisoned population. Two prison staff members have also died from Covid-19.

Graph 1.3

From Detroit Free Press. Available at: https://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/2020/05/09/prisoner-coronavirus-covid-19-deaths/3090182001/

Background on Data

The MDOC has released daily updates through their website providing information on the number of prisoners tested, how many tested positive, prisoner deaths, confirmed positives among staff and staff deaths in each facility. Updated information for prisons is available through the MDOC’s website.

The MDOC started reporting on the spread of Covid-19 in prisons on March 12th, providing information on confirmed cases among the imprisoned population and staff, deaths and testing. They reported the first cases among staff on March 21st and on March 26th the first positives inside prison; seven cases in four separate facilities: Lakeland Correctional Facility, Parnall Correctional Facility, Newberry Correctional Facility and the Detroit Reentry Center. The MDOC updates only show daily total numbers, and thus, lack context and fail to capture the full picture of how the epidemic has spread in Michigan prisons.

Data about the spread of Covid-19 in county jails is scarce and mainly reported by the media. Information on the situation inside federal facilities has been reported by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, although as in the case of the MDOC, their data is limited to the daily total numbers and does not provide any additional information or context, including how many people have been tested. Official sources are failing to report on the spread of Covid-19 in juvenile detention centers and ICE detention centers. Our case study gathers all available data about the situation in federal institutions, state prisons, county jails, ICE detention centers and juvenile detention centers.

Federal Prisons

Michigan is home to four Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) detention facilities: Cherry Street Services, Inc. (with two facilities: in Grand Rapids and Detroit); FCI Milan (Milan); and North Lake CI (Baldwin).

As of May 13th, the BOP reported a total of 25 active cases and three deaths from Covid-19 in federal prisons in Michigan. In the Milan FCI facility, 13 people have tested positive, and three have died; 11 staff members have also tested positive. From the beginning of the outbreak, 71 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in Milan FCI. In the North Lake CI, there were seven incarcerated people and ten staff members with active Covid-19 infections as of May 14th. In total, there have been 63 infections among incarcerated people and 20 among employees. Two people tested positive at the Cherry Street Services, Inc. (Grand Rapids) and another one at the Cherry Street Services, Inc. (Detroit). The conditions inside the facility have been described as a “nightmare.”


State Prisons

The MDOC oversees 31 facilities of varying security levels. As of May 16th, there were 2,235 positive cases in state prisons and 55 incarcerated people had died from Covid-19. The Lakeland and G. Robert Cotton facilities are experiencing the largest outbreaks with 791 and 688 confirmed cases (updated May 12th) encompassing over half and one third of the total populations, respectively. They are followed by Parnall with 179 confirmed cases, Macomb with 109, Gus Harrison with 104 and the Women’s Huron Valley facility with 99.

The MDOC has taken a series of measures to protect its staff and the prison population from Covid-19. On March 18th, the Director of the MDOC, Heidi E. Washington, announced the implementation of a series of precautionary measures, such as more cleaning of common areas, decreasing the number of people in places such as the classrooms or the chow hall, and cancelling large-scale events as well as halting all external visits. They also ordered their staff to telecommute if possible. The measures taken have proven ineffective in preventing the spread of the virus, and a class action brought against the MDOC by four imprisoned people describes them as “woefully inadequate.”

One of the most contentious measures taken by the MDOC was to transfer those who had tested positive to specific facilities for quarantine. The MDOC selected two prisons, the G. Robert Cotton and Gus Harrison Correctional Facilities, to be the location of controversial stand-alone housing units for those who tested positive for Covid-19 around the state. The transfer of people to these housing units started on April 7th.The prison population of those facilities, the staff, families and community advocates raised concerns about the risk of bringing people diagnosed with Covid-19 into prisons where no cases had been reported, since it would put those in G. Robert Cotton and Gus Harrison at risk of infection. Since this measure was taken both prisons have experienced outbreaks and now report some of the highest numbers of Covid-19 cases. More information about MDOC measures can be found here.

Throughout the first half of April the infection rate at the Parnall prison was higher than those of the New York and Chicago jail systems, which received national attention as hotspots of the coronavirus outbreak. This prison was also the first to report a death on April 1st. The deceased person was found unresponsive in his cell and was taken to the hospital, where he died. He had not been tested for Covid-19. Despite housing over 1,600 people behind bars and having 179 confirmed cases, as of May 16th only 243 people had been tested at Parnall, around 15% of the total prison population.

Graph 1.4

Data source: Michigan Department of Corrections. Table: World Peace Foundation 2020.

The testing protocol was completely inadequate for facilities with such large amounts of people contained in closed proximity and without possibility of physical distancing. At the end of March, after the first cases were detected, the MDOC started following the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ protocol. Only if the incarcerated person showed symptoms and met the criteria for testing would the MDOC ask for permission to test them, and the Department of Health had to authorize the testing and provide the testing kits.

As the graphs below show, the number of people tested in the first half of April closely correlated with the number of positive cases, indicating that tests were only administered to those presenting symptoms and not to the prison population at large. Experts have explained that mass testing to identify asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19 is an important step to contain virus infection in congregate settings. With evidence showing that a large number of people infected with Covid-19 do not show any symptoms, the lack of early widespread testing can be identified as one of the reasons behind the large outbreaks inside prison.

At Lakeland (see below), almost 9% of the prison population had tested positive by April 22nd, yet mass testing did not start until April 23rd. This delay in testing took place despite the fact that the facility hosts some of the state’s most vulnerable and elderly incarcerated people. Around 80% of those who tested positive had no symptoms.

Graph 1.5

Data source: Michigan Department of Corrections. Table: World Peace Foundation 2020.


At G. Robert Cotton (below), 5% of the prison population had tested positive by April 27th, but only 9% of the total population had been tested.

Graph 1.6

Data source: Michigan Department of Corrections. Table: World Peace Foundation 2020.

Gus Harrison (below) reported its first positive on April 11th, and by April 15th there were eight. The first cases among staff were identified on April 18th. By May 12th 97 incarcerated people had tested positive, encompassing 66% of those tested. From May 12th to 13th,  DOC reported that 1825 people were tested — the remaining prison population. Somewhat surprisingly only one person tested positive, bringing the total to 98. 

Graph 1.7

Data source: Michigan Department of Corrections. Table: World Peace Foundation, 2020.

The lack of early large-scale testing resulted in very high rates of infection in many of the state-run facilities. In Macomb, 74% of those tested were positive, in Parnall 73%, in Lakeland 55%, in Charles E. Egeler 54%, in the Detroit Reentry Center 50%, in Duane Waters 49%, in G. Robert Cotton 37%. In total, 17.6% of all those tested in prison have had positive results. Among the staff, the rate is 21 percent.


County Level Information: Jails and ICE

According to the National Institute of Corrections there were 88 county jails in Michigan in 2017. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) holds people at jails in Monroe, Calhoun, St. Clair and Chippewa counties under agreements with local officials. County jails and other detention centers are not adequately reporting information regarding the spread of Covid-19 or the number of people being released from these jails. Due to the lack of a centralized information system, each county releases data differently and many are not providing any information regarding the health situation in their facilities or the different measures being taken to address the risks posed by the current pandemic on the population behind bars.

According to media reports, at least 69 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in nine county jails across Michigan as of May 15th. The Sheriff’s Association in Michigan, on the other hand, has reported that only five of those jails have active outbreaks of Covid-19. The affected jails are in the hardest hit areas of the state.

According to media reports:

  • 29 people have tested positive in the Wayne County jail, but as of May 8th only 89 of the 812 detained people had been tested.
  • 11 people tested positive at the Washtenaw County jail and were being kept in isolation.
  • 7 people have tested positive in the St. Clair County Jail, which houses people detained by ICE. The seven people include a 35-year-old Mexican national, a 28-year-old Mexican national, a 55-year-old Mexican national, a 67-year-old Cuban national, a 49-year-old Cuban national, and a 26-year-old Cameroonian national. Another 55-year-old Mexican had also tested positive but was released earlier.
  • 6 people have tested positive in the Oakland County jail.
  • 4 people have tested positive at the Macomb County jail.
  • 3 people have tested positive at the Jackson County jail.
  • 2 people have tested positive at the Cass County jail, 2 at the Kent County jail and 1 at the Calhoun County jail.

The Sheriff’s Association said that measures are being taken to test everyone in the jails where positive cases have been detected and that the plan is to eventually cover all county jails in the state. The executive director of the Association has said that they want to conduct antibody tests in jails, but that they lack a universal policy and each jail has its own policy regarding Covid-19, with many mirroring CDC recommendations.

In early April some county jails in the Detroit area released hundreds of people, with judges making the final decisions of who can be released. Wayne County Jail has released over 400 people since March 10 and it was reported that the Oakland County Jail population has decreased by over 150 people since March 24th. This decrease is the result of the release of those held for misdemeanors, as well as a reduction in arrests, serving warrants and court hearings.


Juvenile Detention Facilities

The juvenile detention center in Kent County reported that two youth and three staff members had tested positive for Covid-19. 



ACLU – Michigan has been advocating for the health of those behind bars and calling the relevant authorities to provide them with adequate healthcare.

Prisoner Advocacy – The American Friends Service Committee’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program. Their main focus is to provide resources and advocate for the rights of incarcerated people.

Safe & Just Michigan advances strategies that safely reduce the state’s reliance on incarceration. They have been advocating for the provision of hygiene supplies and the release of vulnerable groups behind bars.

Detroit Justice Center is a non-profit law firm working alongside communities to create economic opportunities, transform the justice system, and promote equitable and just cities.

Prisoners’ Rights Organization of Students (PROS) is an advocacy and education group dedicated to promoting the interests of individuals confined in our nation’s prisons and jails.

Michigan Abolitionist Project is an initiative that aims to protect local communities, prevent human trafficking and transform the culture that causes slavery to exist and thrive.

The lead researcher on this case study was World Peace Foundation Research Assistant, Amaia Elorza Arregi. Matthew Siegel also contributed to this report. Both are student researchers and affiliated with the Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College.

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