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Opinion: Those in Michigan prisons face a humanitarian crisis during COVID-19

Jonathan Sacks

As of Jan. 15, 23,542 people incarcerated in the Michigan Department of Corrections have tested positive for COVID-19; approximately 58% of all people in Michigan prisons. One hundred and twenty five have died.

This is a humanitarian crisis. Every day at the State Appellate Defender Office, we hear of clients who have tested positive and even died. William Garrison died weeks before his parole. Richard Palombo died after he presented evidence exonerating an innocent man.

Incarcerated people with symptoms or who have tested positive report being housed with others who are not yet sick. They tell us they are not being cared for and are scared for their lives:

COVID-19 does not discriminate and improving conditions for incarcerated people will directly benefit the rest of us, Sacks writes.

“I'm locked in this cell coughing up blood, I can't clean my cell . . . I'm not able to take a shower daily, I can't breathe, I can't eat, I can't smell, I'm losing weight, I'm really scared and I don't know what to do any more please don't let me die in this place please, I’m begging you help me, they’re not letting me call my family, I don't know what else to do please help me I just want to see my family at least one more time before it’s over for me....”

In addition to incarcerated people and their families, these conditions directly impact nonincarcerated Michigan residents. Corrections staff are constantly exposed to people who are contagious and housed in ways that encourage COVID’s spread. They return to their families and communities at the end of a shift, often in small communities, where local hospitals could quickly reach capacity. COVID-19 does not discriminate, and improving conditions for incarcerated people will directly benefit the rest of us.

Feasible and concrete action is needed now.

First, Michigan must prioritize vaccine access for incarcerated people, as recommended by the American Medical Association, and as, for example, Massachusetts and California have done. In Michigan, corrections staff have been identified as a priority, and appropriately so, but not the people in their care.

Second, an independent expert is needed to examine the MDOC response to COVID-19 and provide public recommendations. This model has been successful in Connecticut, where an independent panel reviews the ongoing corrections responses. MDOC’s response needs scrutiny from an independent authority.

Third, MDOC must facilitate communication with loved ones during this crisis. Illinois and Connecticut are among the states that provide free weekly video contact with incarcerated people, while 10 months into the pandemic, MDOC offers the service in only seven facilities.

MDOC should join other states implementing an outdoor, masked visiting system, as weather permits. Individuals should be given free phone calls and plentiful access to email, even when quarantined. A positive diagnosis cannot mean what it means now: solitary confinement, lack of access to legal counsel, lack of communication with family, and lack of decency. We must do better.

Finally, Michigan must speed up parole releases. Michigan’s draconian “truth in sentencing” laws and byzantine commutation system have prohibited sensible release policies implemented in other states that balance public health with public safety.

Michigan can still take steps to maximize safe release. Michigan can expand the parole board to facilitate an efficient review process, such as it did in 2009 to lower population and save money, allowing 13,300 people to receive paroles and 160 people to receive sentence commutations.

The parole board must stop denying parole due to an inability to complete programming that is not offered inside, but rather allow people to complete programming in the community. The parole board can increase the pace of parole for those serving parolable life sentences. More than 500 have served their required minimum sentence, but MDOC only scheduled 72 hearings in 2020.

These steps are specific, modest and easy to implement. Their adoption will go a long way toward reversing an inadequate response to the crisis that impacts some of our most vulnerable citizens and the communities around them.

Jonathan Sacks is director of the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office.