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Advocates say Michigan not getting parole-eligible inmates out fast enough during pandemic

Flickr/creative commons
Jeff Clark, BLM

Updated:  6/18/2020

Sixty eight people have died of COVID-19 so far in Michigan prisons, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections.

It's the second highest number of COVID-19 related deaths in a state prison system in the country, according to the non-profit Marshall Project, which is tracking the cases. Ohio is number one for COVID-19 related inmate deaths.

Advocates for inmates and prison reform say it shows that Michigan is not working fast enough to reduce the prison population, so that the remainder can take advantage of social distancing for protection.

"We're begging for decarceration so people can spread out," says Jacq Williams of Michigan United. "We need to get some people out before the second wave of COVID-19 hits in the fall, and we all know it's coming. We have 10 facilities that haven't even been infected yet."

Williams and others, including former inmates, and Michigan state Senator Erika Geiss, are asking Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to add five people to the current 10-person parole board, to hasten paroles and save people's lives.

They're also asking the prison system to make a certain number of phone calls free, since inmates can no longer see loved ones in person due to pandemic restrictions in place at the prisons. Michigan United says the state allowed inmates one free five-minute phone call a week for a while, but that policy has ended, even though the visitation restrictions have not.

Advocates say new members of the parole board should be more diverse, to reflect the diversity of the prison population. They also want Whitmer to appoint a new commutation board, to focus solely on allowing life sentence inmates, who are no longer threats to society, the chance to be released.

Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz says it takes a long time to train a new parole board member.  In an email, he wrote:

It would take a long amount of time to get some new number of board members up to speed, learn how to read a file, how to interpret our risk assessment tools, how to read parole specific information, etc and would take away time from our staff who are busy doing the work to parole more people now to train new people instead. Adding new members would only slow down the work we are already doing and wouldn’t result in more people being paroled.

Gautz adds the current board is "getting the work done." He says the board is paroling about 9,000 inmates a year.

That does not necessarily mean the prison population is being significantly reduced, however. The state's prison population has hovered from about 38,000 to 43,000 since 2010, according to Prison Policy Initiative, with new inmates entering the system as others are released.   

Advocates for prison reform say the stable, and high, prison population is the result of Michigan policies and statutes that require long sentences compared with other states – along with the absence of "good time," credits because of a law called "Truth in Sentencing."

Hundreds of inmates are currently being held in county jails, awaiting transfer to Michigan prisons once the COVID-19 infections and deaths inside subside. Some of the jails where the inmates are being housed face lawsuits from groups like the ACLU, claiming conditions in the jails are exposing them to high risk of infection from the coronavirus.

The MDOC also faces such a lawsuit.

This story was corrected to say that the MDOC gave inmates only one free five-minute phone call a week for a while, rather than "several free phone calls."  

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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