‘All lives matter’: Activists want more prisoners freed as COVID-19 spreads

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Updated, 11:16 a.m., 4/13/20

COVID-19 has found its way into the Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC), impacting staff and incarcerated individuals alike. There have been 391 confirmed prisoner cases and nine deaths as of Saturday, as well 154 staff cases and two deaths.

Now criminal justice activists are calling on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to up her efforts to release inmates early or risk catastrophic infection of the state’s most vulnerable population.

“All lives matter,” said Darryl Woods, a member of Michigan Liberation, an organization seeking to reform the criminal justice system in counties across the state. “Those are human beings who are suffering behind those prison bars, who are scared to death.”

Whitmer announced an executive order for the early release of vulnerable prisoners on March 30 after DOC reported 77 COVID-19 cases within correctional facilities. She also ordered facilities to properly provide personal hygiene products for frequent handwashing.

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Even before the executive order, the justice system has been working on early releases for inmates amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19. Wayne County Jail has released 763 non-violent inmates amid COVID-19 concerns, according to the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office.

Earl Burton, a Michigan Liberation relational organizer and recent returning citizen after serving 28 years behind bars, said although the governor is on the right track to prevent COVID-19 from devastating lives in jails and prisons, it’s not enough.

“We feel that there are other things that can be done, such as the need for the immediate release of elderly medically infirm prisoners,” Burton said. “I personally know a few who are in no way shape or form a threat to public safety. You have prisoners who have been there for decades, and are no longer the same people that they were 30, 40 years ago.”

Individuals who have been granted parole because they’ve been deemed able to safely integrate into society need to be released immediately, Burton said. They are no more a threat on the day the DOC Parole Board approved them for release than months down the line on the scheduled day of release, he said. 

There are individuals who have reached their earliest release date and who haven’t been released yet because they need to be vetted by the DOC Parole Board to see if immediate release is possible, Woods said.

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The Michigan DOC did not respond for comment about possible releases.

As a recent returning citizen — released in early 2019 after serving 29 years — Woods said he knows there are a large number of people who will lose the fight to COVID-19 if infected in prison.

“There are people who are literally medically frail, incapacitated, and cannot do anything, cannot even function,” Woods said. “They have family members, they have loved ones who are willing to take them in and be able to care for them.”

Closed quarters in prisons have created a breeding ground for COVID-19 all over the country. In New York City, 288 inmates and 488 Board of Corrections staff members have COVID-19 as of Thursday

Burton said not only does the virus itself pose a health risk to everyone in correctional facilities, but the fear and confusion surrounding the virus can inspire prison riots.

In Washington state, more than 100 Monroe Correctional Complex inmates staged a “destructive disturbance” on Wednesday, in response to six men at the facility testing positive for COVID-19, according to the Washington Department of Corrections. The six men were put in isolation to manage infection.

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Risks for juveniles

Juvenile detention centers have been hit during the pandemic, as well.

Two residents and three staff members at the Kent County Juvenile Detention Center were confirmed to have COVID-19. 

Jason Smith, director of youth justice policy for the Michigan Center for Youth Justice, said Whitmer has announced policies that the organization suggested. Facilities are not to admit new placements in facilities unless a juvenile is an immediate threat to others and visitations are to take place online. But he said much more needs to be done for the health and safety of young people in facilities.

Many residents have pre-existing conditions such as asthma, common in children, that make it harder to ward off effects of the virus. This, compounded by limits on visitors depletes facilities’ ability to keep residents safe physically and mentally. 

“Young people, especially that situation, not having that face to face contact with their families and loved ones can be traumatic,” Smith said. “We are advocating for young people to be released from juvenile facilities and halt new admissions as much as possible.”*

Juvenile facilities are county-run, so there is no centralized tracking system of how many young people are residents in detention centers, Smith said. Tracking the spread of COVID-19 is impossible unless facilities like Kent County Juvenile Detention Center choose to be transparent with the public, as he suspects there might be cases in other facilities that are unreported.

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Previous illness outbreaks

Mass illness has devastated the Michigan incarcerated community before. In the early 1990s, an epidemic of what was said to be Legionnaires disease caused unnecessary sickness and death, said Burton, who was incarcerated there at the time.

Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, the only all-women’s prison in the state, houses more than 2,000 prisoners and has long been criticized for failing to provide a clean environment. The prison has had one death from COVID-19.

Director of the University of Michigan Carceral State Project Nora Krinitsky recently said social distancing is not really possible in Huron Valley, because it has overcrowded a facility meant to hold 1,100 people.

As a former incarcerated individual at Huron Valley, Pearson said she knows firsthand how ill-prepared the facility is to combat the spread of COVID-19. She said the main cleaning agent in the prison is called “disinfect” which is 80% water and 20% a generic disinfectant. She said prisoners use the same rag to wipe down the phones as they do to clean all highly used surfaces, they’re not getting the supplies that they need.

Michigan DOC did not respond for comment about cleaning practices at Huron Valley Correctional Facility.

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While U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) recently proposed the “COVID-19 Heroes Fund” for those on the frontlines of the pandemic, Burton said many who are incarcerated are on the front lines of stopping  the spread of COVID to inmates and staff. For workers around the state, the Heroes Fund could mean financial incentive and compensation as they serve their community in dangerous situations and Burton sees a parallel in prisoners fighting for their lives.

I want to applaud the men and women who are incarcerated because when you talk about cleaning, they are doing all the cleaning, for the most part. They’re doing the best they can with the tools that they have,” Burton said. “They are on the frontlines all throughout the facilities. They are doing what they can to be able to help keep the facility safe.”

Letter to the governor

Whitmer has instituted some aggressive orders to fight COVID-19, like extending and strengthening the stay home until April 20. But Michigan Liberation is asking her to keep fighting for the health of all Michiganders and not stop at prison doors.

Michigan Liberation sent a letter to Whitmer this week asking her to release everyone in MDOC custody eligible for parole or have been approved for parole, but have not reached their release date. The organization also wants those who are sick, pregnant, elderly or otherwise vulnerable released and asked Whitmer to increase reentry assistance efforts.

In the letter, Michigan Liberation asks that the governor take action to ensure the state jails and prisons are not in this dangerous situation again. The group asks Whitmer to work with the Legislature on a bill to repeal Michigan’s truth-in-sentencing law, which requires offenders to serve their entire minimum sentence in prison before they can be considered for parole. 

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Last year, there were several bipartisan criminal justice reforms signed into law, including 17-year-olds not being automatically sentenced as adults and civil asset forfeiture changes. Leaders were working on more legislation prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, which has ground other policy priorities to a halt.

The governor has the power to grant commutations to incarcerated individuals, which then allows the DOC Parole Board to determine their eligibility for parole. A commutation is not the same as a pardon and does not erase the conviction, but calls on the DOC to review eligibility. Pearson said she knows many individuals whose requests for commutation are sitting on Whitmer’s desk now.

“We are telling our incarcerated population, ‘Although you were not sentenced to a death sentence, we are leaving you in there to die of a virus that we can’t stop.'”Earl Burton, a Michigan Liberation relational organizer

“We are asking her to please have a hands-on approach and look at these commutations, grant some of these commutations allow some of these people to go, so that we can downsize the population in the prisons and get some of these elderly people home to their families to be cared for like they should,” Pearson said.

Whitmer’s office did not return a request for comment before publication.

Burton said lawmakers need to address overcrowding in prisons. He noted Michigan won’t be able to combat this virus or any future catastrophe if “we still have people sleeping on top of people, sleeping on top of people, inside of these small, confined places.

“If we do not get these people the help that they’re screaming for and we do not put the right attention and limelight on this, we might see the biggest prison riot in history,” Burton said. “We are telling our incarcerated population, ‘Although you were not sentenced to a death sentence, we are leaving you in there to die of a virus that we can’t stop.’”