By BRANDON CHEW
Capital News Service
LANSING — COVID-19 continues to pose a risk to inmates in Michigan prisons, and some criminal justice advocates say changes must be made to state law to reduce the prison population as quickly as possible.
Tough-on-crime laws and policies have created an aging, overcrowded prison population that is especially vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, advocates said.
“The policies that have been passed within Michigan created the opportunity for the virus to spread and flourish so prolifically,” said Elizabeth Bradshaw, a sociology professor at Central Michigan University.
It is a “failure of our state government, both Gov. [Gretchen] Whitmer as well as the Legislature, to really do anything about it to either speed up the release of incarcerated people or do more testing to prevent the spread of the virus,” she said.
Bradshaw has teaching experience in criminal justice and mass incarceration. She recently published a study in the State Crime Journal on COVID-19’s impact in Michigan prisons.
“The vast majority of our prison population now has been infected with COVID-19,” Bradshaw said. “The government is directly responsible for that because these people are in their care.”
“Despite the stigmatized population prisoners are, it’s really the government’s responsibility to take care of them,” she said.
As of Jan. 28, 24,179 inmates in Michigan had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Department of Corrections. So had 3,430 staff members.
At least 132 inmates and four staff members have died from the coronavirus, the department said.
Advocates such as Bradshaw argue the state’s 1998 Truth in Sentencing law has contributed to an increase in the state’s prison population.
“The Truth in Sentencing legislation was one big part of the reason that kept people in prison for so long,” Bradshaw said. “Because during that time frame it’s not that we were seeing more people admitted into prisons, we were seeing people staying for longer periods of time.”
The law requires inmates to serve their entire minimum sentence before being considered for parole.
That requirement has contributed to an older, less healthy prison population, Bradshaw said.
“Because we don’t have the death penalty here in Michigan, the most serious sentence you can receive is life without the possibility of parole,” she said. “We have a lot of aging prisoners; medically frail people.”
The state’s prison population grew from 38,628 in 1992, to a peak of 51,454 in 2006, according to Bradshaw’s study.
Between 1993 and 2013, the number of state inmates age 55 or older doubled each decade, according to Bradshaw’s study.
“It really depends on what your definition is of ‘medically frail,’” said Chris Gautz, a public information officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections.
“We certainly have about 1,800 prisoners who are over the age of 65 and we have another, roughly between 9,000 and 10,000 prisoners that have medical conditions or comorbidities that may make them more prone,” he said.
While there are still tens of thousands of inmates serving in state prisons, Gautz said the parole process is continuing.
“In 2020 we’ve paroled just over 8,000 prisoners,” he said. “Every prisoner that’s in our custody who is eligible for parole has had their case reviewed by the parole board. About 85% of our prisoners have yet to serve their minimum sentence.”
Some criminal justice advocates argued for good time credits to be reapplied to inmates’ sentences, in order to speed up the parole process.
“What we are trying to do is restore a good time credit system,” said Jack Wagner, president of Michigan Justice Advocacy, a nonprofit social welfare organization.
Good time credits have not applied to Michigan inmates since the implementation of the Truth in Sentencing law.
“Michigan is one of only six states in the country that has no time off, no earned credits or productivity credits,” Wager said. “We believe many of the people incarcerated are incarcerated way too long,”
“They could learn their lesson in much less time and so therefore if they are making the right moves and taking the steps to do that, we want to reward that with a sentence reduction,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased criminal justice advocates’ calls for changes to existing law.
“The pandemic certainly lends urgency to repeal Truth in Sentencing laws,” said Jennifer Cobbina, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice.
“Keeping individuals behind bars means that we are converting their sentences into potential death sentences,” Cobbina said. “Failure to act is dangerous for those who are residing in prisons, for those who are working in correctional institutions, as well as the communities surrounding them.”
However, those in the Department of Corrections claim prisons have what is needed to combat the spread of the virus.
“We have all of the cleaning supplies and PPE (personal protection equipment) that we need, we make a lot of our own cleaning supplies,” Gautz said. “We have prison factories where the prisoners make the cleaning supplies.”
“Prisoners also serve as porters, kind of like janitors,” he said. “The clean up the facilities. There’s hand sanitizer available, there’s bleach that’s being used every day to clean up every prison, every day since March.”
Bradshaw said the close proximity of inmates makes it impossible to socially distance.
“You’re talking about a space of maybe 10 by 10 feet, and you’ve got eight men inside this space, it’s physically impossible to maintain six feet of social distance,” she said. “You’ve got 150-plus people sharing just a few toilets and a few sinks. Those kinds of conditions, you’re bound to catch something.”
Criminal justice advocates expressed hope that the pandemic could encourage changes to state laws regarding inmates’ sentencing.
“Maybe these pandemic conditions will force those kinds of polices,” Bradshaw said.
And Cobbina said, “Even though some of the public is not supportive of people who are behind bars, the reality is people in prison are still people. We are not in a normal situation with this pandemic, and individuals should not be trapped inside a corona petri dish, because the result has proven to be quite deadly.”