COVID-19 in prisons labeled 'a humanitarian crisis'

More than 23,000 people incarcerated in the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the State Appellate Defenders Office.

In issuing the statistics Tuesday, SADO Director Jonathan Sacks requested that “feasible and concrete action” be taken to alleviate the situation.

Sacks said 123 prison deaths are linked to the virus. In addition, almost half of all individuals who have tested positive are Black, he said, and Black people account for more than half of the deaths within the MDOC.

“This is a humanitarian crisis,” Sacks said in a news release. “It is our job at the State Appellate Defender Office to represent poor people appealing their criminal convictions.

“Most of our clients are incarcerated within MDOC. Every day at the State Appellate Defender Office (SADO), we hear horrific news of clients who have tested positive and even died.”

One inmate, William Garrison, “died weeks before his parole and Richard Palombo died after he presented evidence exonerating an innocent man,” according to Sacks.

“Our clients are isolated from their friends and family,” Sacks said. “They have not been permitted to see loved ones in person since March and only those participating in a limited pilot program may see loved ones via video.

“The MDOC has chosen the timing of this crisis to supply only photocopies of personal mail, including children’s art.”

Many people have reported problems with social distancing, adequate quarantines, access to sanitizing supplies, denial of medical attention, and unsafe movement and transport, the SADO said.

Sacks called for following action, saying the “four steps are specific, modest and easy to implement:”

• Fair distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine

Failure to prioritize the vaccination of incarcerated people “endangers not only their health and that of corrections staff, but by extension the communities around them, and the communities to and through which they are transported,” the SADO contends.

•  An independent and public audit of the MDOC response.

The SADO referred to a model operating in Connecticut “where an independent panel reviews the ongoing corrections responses to the pandemic. The MDOC’s response “needs scrutiny from an independent authority,” according to the SADO.

• Facilitation of communication with loved ones

Among other things, the SADO recommended: free and comprehensive video conferences with loved ones; outdoor in-person visits, as weather permits; and elimination of new mail restrictions.

“Restricting contraband is a legitimate goal, but when incarcerated people already cannot see loved ones in person, it is inhumane to implement a new policy that prevents original copies of mail,” the SADO said. “The MDOC must rescind this policy and implement alternative measures.”

• Implementation of policies to maximize parole releases upon eligibility.

Among other actions, the SADO called for: expansion of the parole board; adjustment of parole  board decisions for the pandemic; allowing for parole with community programming; increasing the pace of parole for those serving parolable life sentences; restoration of good time and disciplinary credits to all eligible individuals in prison, unless doing so would present an objectively credible threat to public safety; and increasing commutations and release on medically frail parole.

Sacks said adoption of recommendations from SADO “will go a long way to reversing an inadequate response to the crisis that impacts some of our most vulnerable citizens and the communities around them.”

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