Finley: Michigan lags in protecting prisoners

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

While Michigan leads the nation in limiting the freedoms of its citizens to combat the COVID-19 outbreak, it's lagging many other states in freeing inmates to mitigate the spread of the disease in state prisons.

Other governors have stepped up faster to thin the prison population. Inmates held in two-person cells in crowded facilities are particularly vulnerable to the highly contagious virus.

The Corrections Department is reporting as of Sunday there are 414 COVID-19 cases among inmates, and nine deaths, although advocates believe the outbreak behind bars is under-reported.

"Prisons are incredibly dangerous environments," says Imran Syed, of the University of Michigan's Innocence Clinic, who is working to win clemency for vulnerable inmates represented by the clinic. 

Syed is tracking what other states are doing. Ohio, Illinois, California, Pennsylvania, among others,  are each releasing hundreds of prisoners early. In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has quietly granted 17 clemency requests over the past month to inmates whom advocates say were wrongly convicted.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear is poised to commute the sentences of 1,000 prisoners. 

In Michigan, roughly 700 inmates were released in March, close to a normal month. But the department is trying to accelerate the pace, Corrections spokesperson Chris Gautz says. 

Guatz says parole officers are working seven days a week to identify those who can be safely let go early, and hopes to move an additional 130 out this week. The department has asked local prosecutors to waive the 28-day waiting period for reviewing early release requests.

The focus is on non-violent criminals near the end of their sentences, and on those who are elderly and frail, he says.

Still, the scale of the limited scale of the releases is not likely to have a huge impact on Michigan's 38,000 prison population. Rules for freeing convicts slow down the process.

In Colorado, the governor allowed the parole board to cut through some of the red tape to get inmates out ASAP. And the New Mexico governor is using an executive order to speed the process of freeing prisoners.

These are steps Gov. Gretchen Whitmer should take. She has the same responsibility to protect incarcerated citizens as she does the rest of the population.

The Corrections Department is reporting as of Sunday there were 414 COVID-19 cases among inmates, and nine deaths, although advocates believe the outbreak behind bars is under-reported.

Sandra Parker of Allen Park, whose son is in the Gus Harrison facility in Adrian for a crime stemming from his opioid addiction, wrote The Detroit News to say she is "terrified that my loved one will die without ever seeing him again

"He's not in prison because he ever hurt anyone — he didn't commit a violent crime. He needed help; instead, he got 5-20 years. With the pandemic, I am worried sick it may turn into a death sentence. 

"But it doesn't have to. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could take action to thin prison populations so that social distancing protocols could be observed."

She could, and she should. Her emergency powers under state law are among the most expansive in the  nation, and she hasn't been shy about using them. 

Criminals are still human beings. They should be treated with humanity.

Doing so, though, carries risk for a governor — risks Whitmer may not be willing to take while she's auditioning to be Joe Biden's vice-presidential candidate.

Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN

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