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Governor Whitmer urged to reduce prison populations as COVID-19 spreads

inmates outside on basketball court
April Van Buren
Michigan Radio

Attorneys, advocates, family members and inmates are calling on Governor Gretchen Whitmer to use her executive authority to reduce prison populations.

As of April 7, ten Michigan prisons had at least one confirmed COVID-19 case among inmates, and fifteen state prison departments or prisons had confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff.

Phil Mayor of the ACLU says the Governor has clear authority to reduce prison populations to stem the disease's spread - including the ordering of paroles for medical reasons, easing the parole process to hasten early paroles, removing programming requirements like GED diplomas as a prerequisite for paroles, and clearing the backlog of commutations.

Attorney Imran Syed agrees the situation is urgent, especially for older inmates with serious health conditions. 

Syed represents three inmates who have asked the Governor for commutations because they can prove innocence of the crimes for which they were put in prison.  He says time is of the essence in these cases.

"If someone is innocent and someone has health issues, I think we can agree it would be a terrible thing for such a person to die in prison," he says.

One of Syed's clients is Temujin Kensu, who has been in prison since 1987 for a murder that Syed says he could not possibly have committed. Serious trial errors followed by a long litany of technical issues in his appeals have left him with one avenue to freedom: the stroke of the Governor's pen.

Kensu is in Macomb Correctional Facility, where COVID-19 cases have multiplied swiftly.  As of April 7, 10 corrections staff have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 56 inmates.

Syed is also asking the Governor to commute the sentence of Donyelle Woods, convicted of a 2004 murder based on eyewitness testimony that was later recanted.

In another case, Syed is asking the Jackson County prosecutor, rather than the Governor, to agree to release an innocent inmate on bond. Walter Forbes was scheduled to have an evidentiary hearing in Jackson County in mid-April that could have resulted in his release. Now, because of the COVID-19 situation, that hearing could be delayed indefinitely.

Syed says Forbes was convicted of a 1982 arson and murder based on eyewitness testimony that was also later recanted.  He says Forbes also suffers from serious health issues, including diabetes and seizures.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jerard Jarzinka says a decision in the case "has not been made."

The Michigan Department of Corrections says it has taken multiple steps to limit the spread of COVID-19, including no longer allowing visitors, reducing the size of groups going to food services and exercise yards, in some prisons with many cases, implementing a partial lockdown, and distributing cloth masks and cleaning materials for sanitizing surfaces.

But inmates and corrections officers alike agree there is no meaningful way to keep social distancing guidelines in place within the confines of a prison.

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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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