Coronavirus policy must account for those in Michigan jails and prisons

Chantá Parker, Amanda Alexander and Jonathan Sacks

Published in the Detroit Free Press 8:00 a.m. ET March 22, 2020 

Tens of thousands of people are held in Michigan jails and prisons that leave them particularly vulnerable to public health crises. Every day that passes during the COVID-19 outbreak puts them at heightened risk — risk of indefinite incarceration, risk of illness, and indeed risk of death. It also jeopardizes the health of the entire state: an outbreak of coronavirus in Michigan jails and prisons would spread like wildfire behind bars and beyond.

What happens inside our jails, prisons, youth detention centers, and immigration detention impacts everyone. The disease simply cannot be allowed to incubate and spread unchecked, whether in Royal Oak or Central Michigan Correctional Facility. As people fighting against mass incarceration in Michigan, we are sadly familiar with the dangerous conditions inside the state’s facilities. We are also familiar with what officials can do to curtail the worst effects of this outbreak among the incarcerated. We urge them to take action now.

The most effective tool we have in this fight is social distancing, which is impossible in our jails and prisons. Therefore, we must work to reduce incarceration, immediately releasing those people at the highest risk of health complications. To protect everyone’s health and fulfill the state’s duty to incarcerated individuals, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer must use her powers during the current State of Emergency to expedite the commutation process so she can immediately release those who are at highest risk of complications from the coronavirus.

Emergency powers should also be applied to order early jail releases and bond adjustments. Especially vulnerable groups include the immunocompromised, pregnant people, older adults, and those with underlying conditions that the virus is known to compound. Failing to release them risks their lives — lives the state has a legal and moral responsibility to protect — risks the lives of the staff in jails, and risks exacerbating a rapidly worsening public health crisis.

Wayne County officials weigh releasing jail inmates vulnerable to coronavirus

The Legislature also has a role to play. It should amend the County Jail Overcrowding State of Emergency Act to apply to a pandemic-related State of Emergency so that sheriffs and judges may review and release some people, including those over 60 years of age, with respiratory conditions, or with immunodeficiency. We also need sentencing reform to permit the release of those with six months or fewer remaining on their sentence, in order to reduce the prison population and protect public health. County and state officials should immediately halt new admissions to youth detention and residential facilities, and initiate the safe removal of young people from those facilities.

Prosecutors should allow many of those currently held in pretrial and administrative detention to be released in order to protect public safety. Continuing to hold these individuals only creates unnecessary risk. The Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration recommended a reduction in pretrial detention this January, and that recommendation should be implemented immediately in this time of crisis. Traffic violations account for nearly half of all Michigan court appearances, and there is no reason to make such cases a priority, particularly at this critical juncture.

By this same token, there is no reason to continue to arrest and prosecute people for low-level offenses.

The entire state would be safer if we imposed a moratorium on low-level warrants, and a moratorium on arrests for bench warrants that were previously issued for failing to appear in court. No one should be arrested for technical violations of probation or parole. These steps would reduce the jail population and minimize the risk of exposure to incarcerated people, MDOC staff, court staff and the population at large.

Moreover, the vast majority of cases in which the person is not incarcerated should be administratively adjourned to a later date. State and local governments should end all collection of fines, fees, and court debt, and stop imposing interest and late fees.

We must also make provision for those who remain incarcerated during this time to reduce their risk of infection. Those who remain in our jails and prisons should be given expanded sanitation and healthcare resources to fight the virus. Many Michigan jails are in deplorable condition: the ACLU consistently finds that facilities are being kept in unconstitutional disrepair. Moreover, a report last year found that Michigan prison death rates spiked to a 25-year high, amid scrutiny of the system’s food and medical care.

These are exactly the sort of conditions in which a virus can thrive. Jails and prisons must ensure all incarcerated people have soap and running water and hand sanitizer to curtail infection. Should they fall ill, people inside should have expanded high-quality medical care.

MDOC has halted prison visits in the interest of public health. The state’s priority should be reducing the jail and prison population, not restricting the already limited freedoms of those detained. People already approved for parole, and anyone being held pretrial, must be released.

It is a time to do everything we can to ensure that we minimize the effects of this pandemic by pouring our resources into ensuring everyone has access to adequate care. State and county officials must immediately make all calls and video visits free. The Detroit Free Press’ reporting on communication options for incarcerated people — just two free five-minute phone calls and two free emails a week, after which both cost exorbitant rates — points to an issue that must be addressed.

Some officials are taking positive steps already. Thanks to judicial, prosecutorial and defender action, Ingham County Jail’s population is now at the lowest level since the 1980s. Officials must continue, and build upon, these actions.

The United Nations recently called for the release of tens of thousands of people in prisons as the coronavirus wreaks havoc worldwide. There are lessons to be drawn from crises in the United States, too. During Hurricane Katrina, people in prison died as a result of their detention, and callous planning.

Michigan has a responsibility to not subject incarcerated people and the population at large to the risk incarceration poses during a pandemic. 

Chantá Parker is the managing director of Neighborhood Defender Service of Detroit. Amanda Alexander is the executive director of Detroit Justice Center. Jonathan Sacks is director of State Appellate Defender Office.