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Whitmer order seeks to slow spread of COVID-19 virus among prisoners

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered a series of changes to the state’s prison system and recommended modifications at local jails in order to reduce the spread of coronavirus among inmates. 

Barbed wire and fencing at a correctional facility.

The executive order suspends transfers to and from state prisons and allows local jails more freedom to release vulnerable individuals who are no threat to public safety. 

Whitmer ordered the state budget office to seek approval from the Legislature to give jails more money to continue holding inmates who were scheduled to go to a state prison. 

 “It is challenging for inmates and employees to practice social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, and this executive order will put commonsense protocols into place to protect our jail and juvenile detention center populations,” Whitmer said. 

The order details measures already taken by the Michigan Department of Corrections and encourages local jails to adopt the same procedures.

Those practices include screening everyone entering and leaving a facility for symptoms of the coronavirus, developing protocols for infected patients, restricting all visits with the exception of attorneys, practicing stringent hygiene within the jail and among inmates, arming staff with adequate personal protection equipment and practicing social distancing.

The order comes as the number of state prison inmates who have tested positive for the virus climbed to 77. As of Sunday afternoon, Michigan had a total of 5,486 confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide and 132 deaths.

There have been no prisoner deaths attributed to the virus. 

The Michigan Department of Corrections has suspended all visitation to prisoners and restricted movement at facilities where there is elevated incidence, said Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the department. 

Inmates still have access to prison phone and email systems during their stays, Gautz said.

Inmates eligible for release from local jails include pregnant women, people with chronic conditions, the elderly and anyone arrested for failing to appear, failing to pay or a traffic violation.

Corrections officials will reassess the situation at state prisons every seven days to determine if transfers could resume. 

The order also directs juvenile detention centers to delay placement of an individual in a juvenile detention facility if he or she is not a safety risk, to remove individuals with the virus from the general population, and to conduct interactions with family or lawyers through phone or video conferencing wherever possible.

The order will remain in place through April 26.