Mystery rash now afflicts more than 100 female inmates at Mich. prison

The prison has faced previous criticism and lawsuits related to alleged overcrowding and unhealthy conditions


By Darcie Moran
The Ann Arbor News

PITTSFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — At first, Jessica Howard thought she was just itching occasionally. Then one February day she stepped out of the shower and saw it - her thighs and buttocks were black and blue from the scratching.

Eight months later, the itching hasn't stopped.

"I thought it was almost gone on the inside of my thighs, and then I woke up the other night and my thighs were on fire and itching really bad," she said.

The 30-year-old is one of an estimated 115 inmates at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Pittsfield Township now believed to have a mysterious rash.

It was first reported by the Detroit Free Press in March to be afflicting nearly 50 women at the prison, which has faced criticism and lawsuits related to alleged overcrowding and unhealthy conditions. It's the only women's prison in the state, and had a population of about 2,100 at the end of September. 

But seven months after officials noticed the pattern, and even longer since the rashes first started, authorities at the Michigan Department of Corrections still aren't sure what's causing the outbreak.

It's causing alarm among prisoners, who feel not enough is being done.

The rash - described by prisoners as bright red pimple-like bumps with occasional pockets of pus on thighs, buttocks, backs, chests and arms - is not believed to be contagious, said MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz.

Prisoners like Howard aren't convinced.

Howard is currently serving 1.5 to five years for receiving or concealing more than $1,000 but less than $20,000 in stolen property in 2017 in Benzie County. Though she was living in the Dickinson unit of the prison when she got the rash, she said her cellmate had it first and previously lived in the Gladwin unit where it was first documented.

Part of the reason officials suspect the rash is not contagious is because some prisoners do not have the rash, though their cellmates do.

The prison initially treated the rashes as a suspected case of scabies but began looking for other explanations after tests ruled that out, Gautz said.

The Washtenaw County Public Health department received a complaint in August from a parent of a woman at the facility alleging rashes and illnesses were caused by parasites in the water.

However, a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said in an email that all laboratory tests available to them met Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act standards.

Laboratory results dated Sept. 18 and provided to MLive by the Michigan Department of Corrections also did not appear to show unsafe drinking water.

The latest theory is that the rash could be caused by inmate cleaning staff incorrectly mixing chemicals or by inmates washing clothing with self-made soap mixtures in their cell trash cans and pans.

"Since we've done air testing and that's come back negative and we've done water testing and all that's come back negative, this seemed to bear the most fruit in terms of a potential ID-ing of the issue," Gautz said.

Gautz said about 63 of the estimated 115 prisoners with the rash work in a cleaning role - known as a porter - and about 50 percent of the affected inmates admitted, when polled by the prison the week of Oct. 5, to improperly washing their clothing in their cells.

It's unclear why inmates would wash clothing this way.

Gautz said inmate "whites" are washed two days a week and "blues" outerwear are washed two other days a week. The prison worked the week of Oct. 5 to further inform inmates not to wash clothing in their cells, he added.

Topical creams have been distributed. In addition, officials reissued instructions to porters, a role Howard previously filled, on how to use the cleaning products in March and changed the type of gloves being used -- a move documented in September, Gautz said.

New cases of the rash have still appeared in recent months, however. Sabrina Berry, 32, who is serving five years to 7.5 years in prison for a 2015 armed robbery in Ingham County, said she hasn't served as a porter, but noticed her rash in September.

"I'm actually one of the fortunate ones," Berry said, noting she was scheduled to see a doctor.

Health care staff has been reminded of the policy on prisoner referrals, which dictates a visit with the doctor if deemed necessary after three visits for the same issue, he said.

He confirmed seven inmates housed in a 16-person cell - a converted day room - were briefly restricted from movement after a new health professional unaware of the rash history became concerned when three prisoners presented with the irritation.

The department continues to communicate with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services as they investigate possible causes, he said.

Currently, the department is reviewing whether the number of porters and the number of inmates incorrectly washing clothing covers the total number of rash-afflicted prisoners. They are also reviewing a potential control group to evaluate changes in the rash, if all protocols are properly followed.

"So far everything we've been able to do, as well as all the outside experts that have looked at it, have not been able to determine what the rash is or the cause of it, but certainly we've been doing everything possible," he said.

In a note sent through the prison messaging system, Howard said while she hopes to leave prison sooner than later, she's worried about her fellow inmates with longer sentences.

She said she's "just hoping somthing (sic) happens to push the prison to do better so everyone else that has it here (can) get the help they need."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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