BALDWIN — North Lake Correctional Facility has seen 83 total inmates and employees test positive for SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The information about COVID-19 cases only recently became available through the federal government, even as the outbreak saw dozens of people connected to the privately operated prison become sick in recent weeks.
North Lake Correctional Facility is operated by GEO Group, a private company, on behalf of the federal Bureau of Prisons. It houses non-U.S. citizens who have been convicted of federal crimes. The facility is in Lake County near Baldwin.
If the private prison were its own county, it would be the smallest and sickest county within District Health Department No. 10's (DHD No. 10) jurisdiction (though dozens of inmates have recovered).
"It’s a breeding ground … it’s very contagious,‘ said the wife of an inmate in an interview this week with the Cadillac News. Mahmood Hussain, 35, is a permanent resident of the United States who is incarcerated at North Lake Correctional Facility due to a drug crime conviction.
No Detention Centers in Michigan, which is critical of North Lake Correctional Facility, provided Hussain's wife's contact details to the newspaper. She gave her name as Kara but declined to provide a last name due to fears she would be stigmatized in the workplace if it became known she is married to an incarcerated person.
"We're both concerned," Kara said of the COVID-19 outbreak at the prison.
North Lake Correctional Facility is an 1,800-bed facility, though the population was 1,574 inmates on Wednesday. GEO Group said in September 2019 that the company planned to hire about 300 people.
GEO Group confirmed the number of sick staff members this week.
As of May 12, 20 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19, a GEO Group spokesperson said.
"Ten of the employees who tested positive are currently at home on self-quarantine, while 10 of the employees have fully recovered and returned to work after meeting the return-to-work guidelines for essential workers issued by the CDC," the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "Nine of the employees who tested positive reside in Mason County, three reside in Osceola County, two reside in Montcalm County, two reside in Lake County, one resides in Wexford County, one resides in Oceana County, and two reside in Mecosta County."
In Lake County, the state of Michigan lists just two cases of COVID-19 since the outbreak began, which implies that the county's only COVID-19 cases are from the prison workforce.
Bureau of Prison data showed on Thursday that there were 7 North Lake inmates with active SARS-COV-2 infections and 56 that had recovered, or 63 total infections during the pandemic, in addition to the 20 employees.
The local health department, DHD No. 10, does not manage federal prisoner COVID-19 cases, but does serve Lake County, the county in which North Lake Correctional Facility is located.
DHD No. 10 otherwise serves nine northern and western Michigan counties; Lake, Missaukee and Wexford are among them.
If the prison were a county, only Crawford County, with 57 cases on Thursday, would come close to North Lake Correctional Facility's numbers within DHD No. 10's jurisdiction.
Until this week, it's been difficult to get data about sick prisoners at North Lake Correctional Facility.
That's been concerning for family and friends of inmates as well as No Detention Centers in Michigan, the group that is critical of prisons.
Recently, No Detention Centers in Michigan said family members of the North Lake Correctional Facility inmates have sent a letter to the BOP and FBI objecting to the lack of information.
"But to our frustration and alarm, obtaining precise and consistently updated information on these cases has proven impossible," one sentence of the letter states.
The BOP started releasing data on private prisons' COVID-19 outbreaks this week. Omissions and technical difficulty accompanied what data was available.
When the BOP put private prison infection information online, the agency listed only active infections at individual institutions. It didn't say how many had been sick since the pandemic began.
That's in contrast to the way other public bodies have been reporting COVID-19 cases. State and local health departments, for example, have been reporting the total number of cases over time, regardless of whether people have recovered.
By Tuesday, however, the BOP had a pop-up-style table on its website that displayed the number of sick and recovered inmates at North Lake Correctional Facility.
For several hours on Wednesday, the BOP table was down. The available PDF once again showed incomplete information.
When the table came back online Wednesday afternoon, it showed 11 sick inmates and 52 recovered at North Lake, or 63 total since the pandemic began.
That's one more than Tuesday's tally of 62, indicating inmates are still getting sick (and still recovering) at the prison this week.
Thursday's COVID-19 numbers at North Lake showed the facility holding steady at 63 total cases, with seven active and 56 that had recovered.
No North Lake inmates have died of COVID-19.
Although not explicitly stated, more North Lake inmates have had COVID-19 than inmates at other private prisons for which the BOP releases data.
However, a privately managed facility in Oklahoma had 47 sick on Thursday with zero recoveries.
A CIRCULAR PROCESS
Trying to get information about the total number of sick and recovered inmates at North Lake Correctional Facility has been a circular process throughout the COVID-19 outbreak.
For a time, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services would tell interested reporters how many inmates were sick at North Lake.
But that source of information dried up in April.
Michigan Advance reported on April 20 that there were nine inmates with confirmed COVID-19 cases.
An MDHHS spokesperson told the Cadillac News recently that the department was no longer providing that data to the press because "we do not have staff available to pull this information on a regular basis as it takes time away from their other duties."
Instead, MDHHS referred the media to GEO Group for the data.
Earlier in April, GEO Group responded to a Cadillac News request for comment about employees at the private prison who had been confirmed to have COVID-19 (there were four as of April 13) and said no inmates had tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.
The company did not respond to a Cadillac News request for information last week.
This week, GEO Group responded to a question about sick prison employees. Questions about the number of sick inmates, however, were referred to the BOP, which did not start reporting the information until this week.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR CARE
GEO Group is responsible for inmates' medical care.
"Unlike federal inmates housed in BOP facilities, the contractor is responsible for the medical care and the costs associated with providing those services," the Bureau of Prisons states on its website.
In the email to the Cadillac News this week, GEO Group said inmates who have had exposure to employees who tested positive for SARS-COV-2 "will be monitored by medical staff for their health and wellbeing, consistent with the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control."
The company also included a link to their website that listed a number of hygienic, procedural and educational steps the company has taken at its facilities to cope with the disease.