For months, Laura Phillips’ son has lived in fear that his 18 ½-by-19 ½ foot cube in the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian would become a death chamber.
The HIV-positive inmate, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, shares the room with seven other men — and has worried he’d fall victim to the pandemic sweeping Michigan prisons.
"It’s pretty bleak here,” the man wrote May 8 to Bridge Magazine reporting partner Outlier Media. “My cube mate has pretty much been in a coma for the past week. No one even bothers to check on him."
Three days later, in an email, he described “hazmat clad officers coming in to pack up yet another positive case."
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This week, tests confirmed his worst fears: The man who was sentenced to prison last year for writing bad checks and drug possession was one of more than 700 at the 2,300-bed prison to test positive for the virus.
In most states, Phillips’ son would already be a free man.
He was granted parole on April 6, but because of a law known as Truth in Sentencing, he must serve every day of his 20-month minimum sentence, which will keep him behind bars through August.
Another 1,500 Michigan inmates are in a similar limbo because the state is one of at least six nationwide with similar laws. Michigan taxpayers will pay about $24.5 million to incarcerate them for five months, the typical amount of time between an inmate’s hearing and earliest release date.
But as coronavirus sweeps through Michigan prisons, sickening some 3,000 inmates, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has resisted calls from prison advocates to relax Truth in Sentencing laws and facilitate the early release of prisoners already approved for parole.
“That’s the law of the land in Michigan,” said Chris Gautz, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections. “I’ve never seen anything that would allow the [parole] board to supersede that in any sort of emergency.”
Whitmer has taken steps to protect prisoners, including an executive order in March suspending the transfer of people from county jails to state’s prisons “until risk-reduction protocols are adequately in place.” She also ordered the state parole board to work six days a week to increase parole reviews.
Her stance on Truth in Sentencing infuriates activists and Phillips, whose son isn’t exhibiting coronavirus symptoms.
“Let him out!” she said this week from her home in Wayne County outside of Detroit. “You already said it was OK.”
Activists are pushing to get a voter-led initiative on the November ballot that would do away with mandatory minimum sentences.
As of this week, 55 Michigan prisoners have died of the coronavirus, the second-most among states, according to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit online journalism group that covers criminal justice.
“Michigan does not have the death penalty,” Amani Sawari, statewide coordinator for the Michigan Prisoner Rehabilitation Credit Act, which is behind the ballot measure.
“People are suffering from death by incarceration.”
Hard fight for sentencing changes
Drafted in 1994 and implemented in 1999, Truth in Sentencing eliminated “good time” credits in Michigan that let prisoners knock time off sentences for each month served without a misconduct citation.
Similar laws swept the nation during the 1990s. The 1994 federal crime bill, authored by then-Sen. Joe Biden, made states eligible for grant money if they passed laws that required people found guilty of violent crimes to serve at least 85 percent of their minimum sentence.
Michigan’s law went further, and still requires every prisoner, including non-violent offenders, to serve 100 percent of their minimum sentence. The state then received over $22 million in federal grants to build or expand its prisons and jails in 1996 and 1997.
Marquette County Prosecutor Matt Wiese, president-elect of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, said most prosecutors favor the laws, which he said deliver peace of mind to crime victims.
Before the reform, sentencing was “actually kind of a mysterious and unknown process,” he said.
“If we wanted a rapist to be in prison for five years, we had to hope for eight because we didn’t know how those credits would work.”
“If you got five to 15 [years] that meant you would get at least five,” Wiese said. “Prosecutors around the state fought pretty hard for that.”
But advocates say Truth in Sentencing helped cause a demographic shift in Michigan’s prisons that puts the population at higher risk for the pandemic. In Michigan, nearly a quarter of the prison population is 50 or older, mirroring a national trend in the graying of the U.S. prison population.
“Truth in Sentencing is fundamentally about punishment and not rehabilitation,” said John Cooper, executive director of Safe & Just Michigan, a Lansing-based, criminal justice reform nonprofit.
‘Pandemonium’ in prisons
Earlier this month, Whitmer was asked to respond to advocates’ calls for her to use executive powers to increase parole eligibility or release criteria.
“It’s important to continue to parole people at the rate that we have been,” she said. “To the extent that that process can be expedited, we have expedited that process.”
Her staff did not directly answer questions from Outlier and Bridge about Whitmer’s views on Truth in Sentencing, pointing instead to a task force Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist led last year to explore reducing prison populations.
Gautz, the prisons spokesperson, said Michigan has made attempts to lower its prison population amid the pandemic.
The 10-member parole board has accelerated meetings to consider parole and imminent release for those who have served more than their minimum sentence, about 10 percent of the total prison population of 36,500.
The board usually revisits these cases every year, but Gautz said they are now speeding reviews and prioritizing 150 parole eligible people who are medically vulnerable or older than 65.
Gautz said the board is also open to scheduling hearings for more than 1,000 parolable lifers who have served beyond a set amount of years.
Last month, the state released 796 Michiganders from custody, 21 more than April 2019, said Gautz.
Inside of its prisons, Michigan has made several changes in response to the pandemic, Gautz said, including isolating those who have symptoms of COVID-19 or awaiting test results and quarantine those who have come into contact with those who are ill.
The logistics are challenging and vary by facility, Gautz said.
“Some facilities have set up bunk beds in their gyms or in visiting rooms or day rooms,” Gautz said. “We’ve had to move in portable showers. We’ve had to change around our schedules.”
The Gus Harrison facility has now divided eight of its southern housing units into four units for positive people and four units for negative people, Gautz said.
Phillips’ son described this process in a message this week. He said people were being shifted around all night. At one point, he was told he had tested negative, only to be shifted hours later to the positive housing unit.
“After all of those [positive] people were removed and everyone called home to let their families know they were told they were negative, shift change went down” he wrote.
Once second-shift guards came on, Phillips’ son learned that there were tests still pending. People began to get moved around again around midnight. “They moved people in, then they moved them out cause they were here mistakenly,” he wrote. “That lasted literally all night until 7am.”
“It was pandemonium, literally craziness,” he wrote. “No one seems to have a clear picture of what is going on here."
In response, Gautz said, “There were numerous moves over Saturday and Sunday. According to the facility, it was possible that a prisoner was moved multiple times.”
Other states take action
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, other states are taking steps to release prisoners ahead of schedule.
The Arkansas Department of Corrections expanded its emergency powers act to reduce restrictions on parole eligibility, forwarding a list of 1,244 people to the parole board to consider them for early release.
Iowa’s Department of Corrections moved to expedite the release of about 700 parole-approved prisoners in March and an additional 400 in April. The state doubled its parole board staff to better handle the outflux of prisoners.
In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan issued an executive order allowing for the early release of inmates within four months of their release date.
The Virginia Legislature voted to give its department of corrections the authority to release non-violent offenders with one year or less remaining on their sentences. There are 6,400 people in Michigan prisons within one year of parole eligibility.
Of those states, only Virginia continues to adhere to a strict Truth in Sentencing philosophy.
Advocacy groups said Whitmer is well within her right to use executive powers to ease the strain on Michigan’s prisons.
She “can, and should, take emergency measures to safely but swiftly lower our prison population,” including “temporarily reinstituting the use of good-time and disciplinary credits to advance parole eligibility dates,” Dan Korobkin, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, wrote in a statement.
“Lives can be saved,” he wrote, “but only if we act now to protect people who are most vulnerable to serious illness and death from Covid-19.”
Meanwhile, Phillips’ son said he is befuddled and angered by Whitmer’s inaction.
“I am curious why people such as myself who have positive parole action, people who are deemed by the parole board to be fit for the community, are being made to sit for months until their earliest release date, hoping not to become ill?”
For now, Laura Phillips and her son are supporting each other via JPay, a pay-as-you-go email system used by the state.
On April 11, the messages came in to Laura Phillips from her son one after the other. She had just lost a beloved dog.
“Mom, I am giving you a chance to grieve.... I just am freaking out.. EVERY day things here get more intense,” he wrote. “Anyways..[sic] Feel better I love you have a good day..”
“I love you mom..MUAH..,” he wrote later in the day.
“It will be okay.. Dont cry. Stanford University says the death rate is MUCH lower than initially thought. Anyways.. I will call you later I love you. MUAH>”
About the author
Joey Horan is a freelance journalist and educator working with Outlier Media to cover the COVID-19 pandemic in metro Detroit. His previous work can be found at Michigan Radio and Belt Magazine.