Michigan’s COVID19 Success Leaves Prisoners Behind

graph depicting death disparity in Michigan prisons.

Michigan’s COVID19 success has been declared and the state has publicly moved on to important but less-urgent steps. Why is Michigan a national leader in prisoner deaths?

We are better as a state with Governor Whitmer, and this is not an attack on her. Rather, it is an observation that MDOC COVID19 practices are questionable, and further prisoner protections seem merited.

Compare and Contrast COVID19 Actions – Free Citizens versus Prisoner Citizens

It’s great that Michigan is undergoing a program to facilitate children’s safe return to school. The governor is right to promote this proactive well-thought-out plan.  Contrast this with Michigan prisons, where there is a serious lethal problem, but no willingness to act beyond closely-held general guidelines.

Recently, the governor issued an order requiring long term care facilities (nursing homes) to strengthen reporting. This good important step was taken, in part, to identify how best to help the struggling facilities. Compare this strengthening of care at long-term care facilities with what hasn’t been done for prisoners. The highest casualties in prisons have been clustered in certain facilities while others have essentially had none.

Michigan's COVID Success for children and elderly in contrast to prisoners

Michigan’s COVID19 Success Needs to Extend to the Prisons

Citizen prisoners have not received good effective COVID treatment like that afforded Michigan’s other citizens. Humanity and prevailing conditions ask that question, “if not now, when”?

Here are actions that could improve COVID19 protections for prisoners:

  • Expand and influence parole board operations to release reasonable candidates. Get past the stance that says this has already been done or is impractical. Cash in on the reality that older prisoners cost twice as much per year (about $44K versus $100K+) when their release is relatively less a safety concern. Do not subscribe to the fallacy of prisoners being better off in prison than on the streets of hometowns like Detroit.
  • Take steps to make it free or at least reasonable for prisoners and their families to be in contact. Do not be subjugated to the lucrative third-party contracts that control communications (like phone calls) where other states have secured concessions from the same monopolistic vendors (like GTL and Aventiv-Securus). Concessions are necessary to thwart the extreme negative cause-effect relationship that lack of familial access holds over emotional-psychological health.
  • Issue an executive order requiring a comprehensive prison pandemic plan, with responsibilities and reporting. Escalate the need for publicly visible performance by facility, including for example, deaths by age and racial groupings (would these numbers support the fact that black lives matter?). Strengthen operations, for example: require chlorine-based cleaning given the impracticality of social distancing; set standards for masks and testing; and better account for prisoners who have been exposed to others confirmed to have the virus. Do not accept a culture of punishment and neglect under a veil of public safety.
  • Take steps to protect prisoners in the here and now, and do this in concert with necessary economic and humanistic changes to Michigan justice at large. Do not perpetuate blatant prosecutorial punishment behaviors that still dominate at most every turn. Demonstrate social-political will to go beyond the politically convenient. Break the killing-cycle of Michigan having (in the country) the oldest average age of prisoners, who serve the longest average sentences, etc.

Michigan has systemic problems to break if they are not to remain a national leader in prisoner deaths.  Now and into the future. 

Of course, there is the usual reasoning – money is tight, people are busy, and there are conflicting stances on need. Still, if the MDOC is performing well, it seems they would be eager to be more transparent.

There is a sizable horde of folks who quickly say prisoners are getting their just rewards, that essentially, “death by incarceration” is a good thing.

Blacks in Michigan make up about 13% of the population. This makes it a racial statement that blacks make up about 53% of the MDOC prison population. These numbers indicate more than racial disparity – it is systemic racism.

Plus, another more powerful horde will not be dissuaded from profiting off of the plight of voiceless prisoners – they want fish in the proverbial barrel to shoot. Huge profit is built on peoples’ backs. This encompasses poor blacks and increasingly, more poor whites, into new slavery. White people are starting to get it. And the pandemic carries on.

It’s a glowing hot mess that the governor leaves to MDOC Director Heidi Washington. The director keeps a tight lid on it. Prisoners say she was an accessible advocate of women’s prisoner issues back when warden of Huron Valley, but as director, she did an about face and became an inaccessible powerful prisoner adversary.

Michigan’s history of integrity deficiency and prison abomination is not the fault of Governor Whitmer. She has done an incredible job on COVID19 for free citizens. And she has done this with relatively less federal support. We should all be grateful. But it is reasonable to expect more of the MDOC.

Michigan’s COVID19 success has bypassed prisoners, who are among the most vulnerable, with faint voices. The MDOC should improve prisoner protective actions and be subjected to third party review.