Twitter campaign encourages Whitmer to #LetMiPeopleGo from Michigan prisons

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Activists have organized #LetMiPeopleGo, a Twitter campaign through 3 p.m., to urge Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and corrections officials to speed release of prison inmates during the coronavirus outbreak.

Last month, the Michigan Department of Corrections told The Detroit News, about 700 people were released from the state's prisons — about what's expected in a state that paroles about 9,000 people per year. Chris Gautz, spokesman for the department, has said previously that numbers will likely take a leap in April. 

Coronavirus reached Michigan on March 10. By March 13, visits to prison facilities were suspended. As of Monday night, 400-plus prisoners had contracted the virus, and 10 have died. There are about 37,700 prisoners in Michigan.

Of the 6,000 corrections officers in Michigan, 169 have contracted the virus, and two have died. 

Those numbers concern activists, who argue that a prison sentence is as good as a death sentence during an outbreak. 

A coalition of about a dozen criminal justice reform groups in Michigan penned a letter to Whitmer and Corrections director Heidi Washington on April 6.

"There is no doubt in our minds that the best way to manage the Covid-19 challenge in Michigan’s prison system is to release as many people as possible as quickly as possible. We believe that can be done without compromising public safety, and in the best interest of public health, but it will require the system to consider different rules," the four-page letter urged

"We waited. We hoped. And now we're inviting more people to join us in lifting up these recommendations," said Amani Sawari, state campaign director of an effort to place a November 2020 ballot initiative that would restore "good time" credits to the prison system, which were eliminated in the state's 1998 Truth In Sentencing law.

Of the state's almost 38,000 prisoners, about 28,000 of them can't be considered for parole because they haven't served their minimum term. Another 5,000 people are in for life. This leaves only 5,000 people who are parole-eligible.

More:Michigan speeds parole reviews but few prisoners qualify

"There's no way anyone can be looked at by a judge and be told when they'll be rehabilitated, or a better person," Sawari said. "Everyone should have flexibility in that number."

The ballot initiative is for the Michigan Prisoner Rehabilitation Credit Act, and thus far about 202,000 signatures of the required 347,000 have been gathered, Sawari said.

That effort has been somewhat hampered at a time when most Michiganians, in most circumstances, are subject to Whitmer's "stay-at-home" order, but it hasn't stopped. About half of the signatures gathered thus far have come back during the lockdown.

More:Whitmer extends Michigan's stay-home order through April 30, adds restrictions

People who opt-in online are sent a petition to sign and send back. The group has sought a virus-related deadline extension with the Michigan Secretary of State's Office, but was told the deadline had not changed.

The Secretary of State Office did not immediately respond to a request for information.

Sawari believes that the virus only highlights the need for a paradigm shift that allows inmates' behavior in the prison setting to speed their return to the rest of the world.

"If we did not have Truth In Sentencing, we would have a lot more leverage to get people out of prison," Sawari said. "But whether it's pregnant women or medically vulnerable people, we see that there's this barrier every time."

Just 20 minutes in, #LetMiPeopleGo became a Twitter trending topic in Detroit. 

One tweet, directed to Whitmer, read: 

People in prison are parents

People in prison are kids

People in prison are siblings

People in prison are people

Another, tagging Whitmer, Washington and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, said: "We paroled an average number of people in March. An AVERAGE number of people. And 416 people got sick. 10 people died..."

The Detroit Justice Center, meanwhile, tweeted that "prison is no place for a pandemic."

Whitmer's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Twitter: @downi75