Calls for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to release prisoners at greatest risk of falling severely ill from coronavirus are growing as the disease spreads to at least seven of the state’s correctional facilities, including one housing hundreds of elderly and medically vulnerable inmates.
As of Thursday evening, 13 inmates and at least four employees across the state’s prisons had tested positive for COVID-19.
Numerous advocacy groups have warned the disease could ravage cloistered prison populations and amount to a death sentence for older and sick inmates. The group Michigan Liberation on Wednesday launched a petition calling on the governor to commute the sentences of the most vulnerable.
The risk is perhaps greatest at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, near the Indiana border, where more than half of the prison’s approximately 1,500 inmates are over 60 or have a chronic medical condition. As of Friday morning, at least four inmates at the prison had tested positive for coronavirus and dozens were in quarantine.
Lamont Heard — whose unit is affected — says tensions are running high.
“People getting hypochondria and talking about disruption,” he said. “They’re like, ‘shoot, we sittin’ ducks — ain’t nothing we can do to prevent it happening to us.’ We trapped just watching people get sick, one by one.”
Heard says guards were slow to prevent further spread of the virus after the first cases were confirmed Wednesday. As of midday Thursday, dozens of inmates who should have been quarantined were still in their barracks-style cubes and using the same bathrooms as prisoners presumed to be healthy. They were later moved to a quarantine area after an inquiry from Deadline Detroit. A spokesman for the Department of Corrections said prison staff did not want to move too many inmates at once.
MDOC has taken a defensive approach to mitigating the spread of coronavirus, suspending visitations, stepping up cleaning protocols, giving inmates access to bleach and soap, and mandating temperature screenings of employees. Fever is a sign of coronavirus, though the disease can be transmitted by people who exhibit no symptoms.
No cases have been confirmed in the Lakeland unit where older inmates with chronic health issues reside — the so-called “gangster retirement home.” But Heard believes it's only a matter of time, noting that inmates from elsewhere in the complex were until now able to visit the high-risk area for work or medical treatment.
“The governor’s got to use her commutation powers to free these guys because once the virus gets over there, that’s going to kill a lot of guys,” the 42-year-old said. “She don’t want a body count on her hands or for it to get to where [an outbreak] is just running up the numbers in the hospital.”
He added that Whitmer hasn’t addressed the prison population in news conferences.
Whitmer’s office declined comment.
The commutation process typically takes months, but could be expedited in a state of emergency, experts say. The governor could also recommend the Board of Parole approve medical parole for inmates at greatest risk. Such release is typically granted to prisoners with only months left to live.
“They should start processing and releasing these people immediately, especially people who have family members out there to take care of them,” said Daniel Manville, director of the civil rights clinic at Michigan State University Law School. “A lot of them are so old, I don’t see them trying to rob a bank in a motorized wheelchair.”
But Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor and former Assistant U.S. Attorney, says it’s unlikely commutations will be issued in time to save lives.
“It’s not a quick process,” he said. “Even if expedited, it would take time to identify those who ought to be commuted because you have to balance the public safety risk. It’s not an easy situation, politically.”
A spokesman with the Department of Corrections last week told Deadline Detroit the parole board would consider releasing inmates to thin the prison population if the pandemic continues “for a long period of time.” Medically vulnerable inmates who pose less of a threat to the public and have served their minimum sentences would be considered. About 5,000 of MDOC’s 38,000 have met their minimum terms.
No progress had been made on that front as of Thursday.
“We definitely don’t want to see it spread in our facilities, but we have to be mindful of the general public,” said MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz. “Our purpose is public safety.”
The fact that the virus is already spreading in the system presents an additional conundrum: whether to release potentially infected inmates or quarantine them inside.
The department was criticized this week for releasing a prisoner from the Detroit Detention Center whose coronavirus test was still pending. The parolee was confirmed positive the day he was let out.
Metro Detroit jails have moved to release inmates as the virus spreads.
At least 100 Wayne County Jail inmates were selected last week for possible administrative release and efforts were underway to identify for release additional medically vulnerable, non-violent offenders.
At least 50 potential inmates in Oakland County have also been targeted for possible release. The county's chief judge has also recommended that justices release defendants on personal bond when possible, meaning they can go home without posting bail.