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Michigan’s coronavirus dilemma: how to protect prisoners and public

With 38,000 inmates jammed into 29 Michigan prisons and coronavirus spreading like wildfire in some of the facilities, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer floated an idea Monday:

Why not release some vulnerable and non-violent prisoners to ease the crowding conditions that spread COVID-19?

Advocates for prison reform argue that thousands of inmates could be let out of state prisons and county jails without jeopardizing public safety. Release of old and sick prisoners, they say, would protect a population most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Experts agree that prisons can be virtual petri dishes for the spread of the coronavirus. But could there be a greater health risk to the public if some prisoners are let out early? How is the public to know whether released prisoners already have the coronavirus?

People from the governor to prison officials to state judges are trying to navigate a medical - and ethical - dilemma: how to protect the most people possible from a potentially deadly virus while not needlessly harming others.

The soaring rate of COVID-19 cases in Michigan’s state prison system lends further urgency to this issue, as cases among inmates climbed to more than 172 in nine prisons as of Michigan Department of Corrections’ latest tally at 8 p.m. Thursday. There were no confirmed cases just 12 days earlier. The cases include 75 at Parnall Correctional Facility near Jackson, and 43 at Macomb Correctional Facility in Macomb County. 

Natalie Holbrook of the Michigan Criminal Justice Program said her organization is hearing from panicked prisoners and their families at prisons like Macomb Correctional Facility about a situation that seems to them “incredibly tense and potentially chaotic.”

“It’s a mess and it’s boiling over right now.”

Asked by Bridge Magazine for any specific plan by Whitmer to further early release of some state prisoners, spokesperson Robert Leddy said: “We are in discussions on potential paths forward with the Michigan Department of Corrections that would further mitigate the spread, while balancing public health and public safety.”

On Thursday, U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider warned against mass release of defendants awaiting trial in Detroit in a Thursday letter to Detroit’s chief federal judge.

"I would … strongly urge the court to pause and consider the risk that a mass release of criminal defendants would pose to public safety right now. Judicial and law enforcement resources are already under strain, and our district suffers from more violent crime than almost any other district in the nation."

President Donald Trump criticized the national move. “We don’t like it,” Trump said Thursday of any push by states to let prisoners out early. “The people don’t like it, and we’re looking to see if I have the right to stop it in some cases. … Some people are getting out that are very serious criminals in some states, and I don’t like that.”

Judges across the state have taken measures to lower county jail populations amid the COVID-19 outbreak. As a rule, jails house inmates who are awaiting trial and sentencing, as well as inmates convicted of less serious crimes than prisons, including many convicted of misdemeanor crimes.

In Oakland County,  judges were reviewing sentences of nonviolent offenders and those with medical conditions. About a month ago, the Oakland County jail had some 1,250 inmates. That was down below 1,100 a few days ago.

In Macomb County, Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said the jail housed about 875 inmates a couple of months ago, and was down to 675 in late March. Wayne County officials said its jail has released nearly 250 inmates since the rise of coronavirus.

A few months ago, Kent County’s jail population was about 1,000. It was down to about 850 today in late March, Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young told Bridge.

“Judges looked at those people on their caseload and made decisions on who could be released. Nobody on a violent charge,” LaJoye-Young said.

On Friday, Kent County officials confirmed that three staff members and two juvenile inmates tested positive for COVID-19 at the Kent County Juvenile Detention Center in Grand Rapids.

Twelve juveniles were in quarantine, officials said, after it was determined they had “high-risk” contact with one of the staff members who tested positive.

Some releases have been controversial. On March 19, William Strampel, former dean of Michigan State’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, was released from Ingham County Jail two weeks ahead of his scheduled release date as part of an effort to reduce jail population during the pandemic. Strampel was serving a one-year sentence for willful neglect in his role as boss of disgraced former MSU doctor Larry Nassar, who sexually assaulted hundreds of young women.

Ingham County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Jason Ferguson said: "Many agencies are trying to reduce jail populations as they are at risk [of COVID-19] because of how confined they are in a jail facility … We didn't really control necessarily who got out, we just follow judges' orders."

At least one early-released prisoner has since tested positive for coronavirus, which he apparently contracted in prison. 

Pontiac resident David Aguilar told Bridge Magazine he was released from Detroit Reentry Center on March 26, three weeks before his scheduled release date. He said his early, unexpected release followed two days of high fever in his cell, then two days in quarantine. He said he suspected prison officials simply wanted him out of the prison.

Aguilar said he was given a nasal swab to test for COVID-19 the day before his release.  Authorities didn’t wait for the results, as he was dropped off at a distant bus stop along with another inmate.

Two days after his release, he told Bridge, his parole agent phoned to tell him he had tested positive. He feared he might have already infected the relatives he shares his home with.

“I feel like they should never have let me out,” Aguilar said. “The safety and health of others is far more important than a couple more weeks in jail.”

Recent legislation aimed at early release of state prisoners illustrates the thin line officials walk in trying to reduce medically at-risk prison population. 

In May 2019, Whitmer signed bills aimed at parole of medically frail state prisoners that officials estimated could trigger release of up to 30 prisoners immediately,  and 500 in the future.

“This bill package will ensure that our state can properly manage treatment options for our aging inmate population while reducing the cost to taxpayers,” Whitmer said at the time.

Nearly a year later, exactly zero inmates have been released under the measure.

MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz said it’s not proven as simple as backers foresaw.

“Our health care unit is constantly reviewing cases under the law that are eligible,” he said in a statement to Bridge Magazine.

“For a prisoner to qualify under the law, they have to have significant health care issues, and also can’t be high or moderate risk to reoffend through our risk assessment tool. Sex offenders are also excluded under the law.

“So we have yet to have a prisoner who screens as low risk, has significant healthcare issues and does not fall under any of the other items in the law that would screen someone out.”

According to MDOC, there are just under 5,300 inmates now eligible for parole. Among those, 1,907 were sentenced for assaultive offenses, 1,341 for sexual offenses and 1,464 for non-assaultive offenses, the latter of which could include crimes like retail fraud, firearms violations, home invasion and operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

According to Gautz, within the overall group of those eligible for parole,  57 are over the age of 60 and are serving time for non-violent crimes.

One prison reform advocate argued that “thousands” of prisoners – including many in this group – could be safely released to the public.

“There are some ways to relieve this pressure valve,” said Holbrook, of the Michigan Criminal Justice Program, an Ypsilanti-based criminal justice reform advocacy organization.

Holbrook noted that some 1,900 inmates in that parole-eligible group were sent back to prison for parole violations. She said that could be for violations like leaving the state without permission, a confrontation with police or a domestic dispute.

An MDOC report on state prison population in 2018 found that there were 65 inmates that year 80 or older; 678 ages 70 to 79; and 2,574 ages 60 to 69.

A report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that, while the overall death rate of reported COVID-19 cases in China was about 2.3 percent, mortality shot up to 8 percent for people in their 70s who became ill and 14.8 percent for those in their 80s.

Gregg Gonsalves, a Yale School of Public Health epidemiologist and expert on disease in prisons, told Bridge earlier this week that elderly prisoners are at similar risk to those in the Washington state nursing home where at least 19 residents died from COVID-19.

“Think of a prison as the same kind of close-quarters facility. You have to get the most at-risk people out of there,” he said.


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