Photo by Forsaken Fotos  - More cells, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Forsaken Fotos - More cells, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s the latest look inside Michigan’s prisons, where social distancing is not an option and offenders are succumbing to COVID-19 faster than anywhere else in the country.

MICHIGAN — It wasn’t supposed to be a death sentence but nearly 60 Michigan offenders have now died serving their time in the correctional system due to the pandemic. 

Michigan doesn’t have the death penalty. It was the first governing body ever in the English-speaking world to abolish it, after just ten years of statehood. Michigan is the only state to constitutionally ban the death sentence. And yet, coronavirus made 59 prison sentences death penalties. 

That gives Michigan another historic marker about prisoners and death. Those 59 lives make Michigan the deadliest state for prisoners during the coronavirus pandemic, reports the Detroit Free Press. The Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) also has more deaths than the entire federal prison system, which has nearly five times as many inmates. 

“When you have been in prison yourself and almost every single day you read about more incarcerated people dying from COVID-19, it is devastating,” Joshua Hoe, policy analyst for Safe and Just Michigan who was formerly incarcerated, told the Free Press.. “None of these people were sentenced to die from this virus and how we choose to respond says a lot about how much worth as a society we place on incarcerated lives.”

Over 2,000 Michigan prisoners have tested positive for the coronavirus. Two MDOC staff members have died, too. 

Which all begs the question how is Michigan handling things? MDOC data gives insight into the answer.

What is MDOC Changing?

One of the most notable things changing for prisoners and their families is suspending all non-essential visitation. That action was taken just days into the pandemic’s spread in Michigan. But MDOC worked to offset this by providing two free five-minute phone calls and two free stamps per week to those incarcerated for as long as visitations are suspended. 

That’s actually a pretty big deal. Calls and emails can cost a shockingly large amount, and as HuffPost notes, the critically low wages prisoners make can’t just be compared to slavery, they draw on slavery’s legacy. Wages as low as a dollar an hour run against costs Human Rights Watch noted, like a four-minute phone call running more than $50.

RELATED: He Was Just About To Be Released After 4 Decades In Prison. Then Coronavirus Killed Him.

But certain visitations are still happening, like attorneys and substance abuse programs. 

Staff are also making operational changes. Prisoner transfers are on hold, staff aren’t engaging in out-of-state business travel, staff work is being handled remotely as much as possible and all staff will be required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). 

Facilities have also enhanced cleaning and disinfecting procedures, including the use of bleach, to help slow the spread of the virus as much as possible. Soap is being given on request to prisoners free of charge and messaging that explains and encourages pandemic-focused hygiene is being posted in all institutions. That messaging is the same as messaging used in other state government facilities. 

And, once people are infected, MDOC has procedures in place.

What Happens When a Prisoner Tests Positive?

The MDOC has pushed aggressive testing to keep coronavirus from acting as a death sentence. Anyone showing symptoms gets tested. Prisoners slated for release are tested before that release and in facilities hit hardest full testing is the order of the day. And copays for any testing are waived. But what happens when those tests come back positive?

Prisoners who test positive get isolated from the general population and any prisoners or staff who had close contact are encouraged to quarantine. Those confirmed to have the virus then get transferred to special quarantine units at G. Robert Cotton Correctional Facility, Carson City Correctional Facility or the former Maxey Annex, which is located near Woodland Center Correctional Facility. 

If it’s needed, prisoners with symptoms will be taken to area hospitals for treatment. 

SEE ALSO: Coronavirus Two Months In: What Michigan Has Overcome — And What Lies Ahead

While Michigan’s definition of “recovery” leaves something to be desired, MDOC has another status in use. “Step-down” is their term for patients who are no longer contagious and have been medically cleared. 

After step-down turns into recovery, inmates are transferred to a recovery unit at Central Michigan Correctional Facility. No one still testing positive is transferred to Central to reduce risk of reinfection. 

What About Early Release?

There won’t be executive clemency for nonviolent offenders as a result of the coronavirus, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a press conference. But those who are eligible for parole are having the process expedited. Vulnerable inmates who have served their minimum sentence and are eligible for parole, especially, are having their cases prioritized. 

The parole board is also processing cases as quickly and safely as possible. Though parole representatives can’t physically attend board proceedings, they are allowed to call in. 

In spite of efforts to expedite the release of those who are eligible, there are a few delays in the process caused by the need to test every inmate for the coronavirus prior to release. The parole board is prioritizing safety on a case-by-case basis.

MDOC will also be holding virtual parole board hearings for parolable life sentences, and has posted more information on that process. 

Is This Really a Death Sentence?

As The ‘Gander noted early in the pandemic, social distancing is both a critical tool in slowing the spread of a pandemic and is fundamentally impossible in prison. This made prisons nationwide into pandemic tinderboxes. But clearly, Michigan’s prison system has fared far worse than its peers. 

There isn’t a solid understanding yet of what structural factors might be causing that, but given what we do know, keeping the virus contained in a prison is a serious challenge for both prisoners and staff. 

READ MORE: Social Distancing Isn’t Possible In Prison. That Makes It A Tinderbox During Coronavirus.

And while we don’t know why Michigan’s prison system is uniquely challenged, we do know why prisons in general are uniquely challenged. 

“Generally, in the prison system, if health care delivery was inadequate prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, then there’s a very good likelihood that the quality of health care is even worse now,” Dr. Marc Stern, former medical director of the Washington Department of Corrections and faculty member at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, told the Free Press..

“It may explain not only the infection rate but more importantly, the death rate. Because patients may have trouble getting seen for their symptoms. And when they’re seen, the care that they get maybe suboptimal.”

MDOC data published on Medium shows 17 out of 29 facilities in their system have at least one confirmed case of the coronavirus. The facility with the highest number of infections is Lakeland, which as The ‘Gander reports, poses unique risks as it relates to case fatalities as it houses largely elderly inmates. More Lakeland inmates have tested positive than have tested negative. 

For elderly prisoners at Lakeland, especially, coronavirus threatens to become a death sentence.

“The elderly are more at risk,” said Stern. “And whereas we use 65 as the definition of elderly in the community, in prison, we should be using an age that’s 10 or 15 years younger.”

But, to their credit, despite having the highest death count nationally MDOC has managed to maintain a much lower case fatality rate than the rest of the state. While Michigan’s nears 10% and Detroit’s exceeds 12%, only 2.6% of confirmed cases in MDOC’s system have resulted in deaths.