Due to the recent outbreak of COVID-19 in Michigan, specific orders to practice social distancing have been given to residents. In fact, today, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a “stay-at-home” order to take effect across the state. Social interactions are to be limited, people are advised to only leave their homes if completely necessary and all large gatherings have been suspended. However, inmates who are stuck in overcrowded facilities do not have the luxury of taking these precautions.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, along with the help from Safe & Just Michigan and American Friends Service Committee, have acknowledged that most inmates do not have the privilege to partake in social distancing. They have created a document that both addresses concerns and lists proactive measures the Michigan Department of Corrections should take to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak among the incarcerated. This letter has been sent to the head director of the MDOC, Heidi Washington, as well as every county sheriff in the state of Michigan.
According to ACLU-MI legal director Dan Korobkin, “Prisoners have the constitutional right to timely and adequate health care,” meaning they deserve to have immediate access to any testing kits and immediate treatment when given symptoms of COVID-19 arise.
“Prison and jail administrators must take preventive measures to prevent an outbreak, ensure that appropriate medical treatment is provided if illness occurs, suspend visitation and other privileges only when absolutely necessary and work with the parole board and local judges to eliminate or drastically reduce the number of vulnerable people behind bars,” Korobkin said.
The letter also mentions that the incarcerated are one of the groups who are most susceptible to COVID-19, regardless of any underlying health conditions or age. Their close proximities play a large part in not only spreading the disease to fellow inmates but also to wardens and officers inside — some of the few jobs that cannot be done remotely.
The ACLU is also urging the MDOC to team up with the Michigan Emergency Operations Center too, in order to come up with a treatment plan that evolves as more cases of COVID-19 show up in those behind bars. They call for the education of both correctional staff and the incarcerated about the virus and prevention plans for its spread, along with continuous access to warm water and sanitation for inmates. Food preparation, which is primarily done by inmates, is to be kept highly sanitized and uninterrupted, and a clear plan needs to be developed that demonstrates protocol if an inmate were to test positive, or be exposed, to COVID-19.
The ACLU also calls for all possibilities of reducing the number of people behind bars by working closely with the parole board. Any alternative to incarceration for inmates, starting with those who are at the highest risk for the virus, should be utilized in this pandemic. Possible alternatives suggested by the ACLU include early release, bond reduction, pretrial diversion, parole and medical clemency.
The ACLU also criticizes the statewide decision made by the MDOC to suspend all in-person visitation. Unless absolutely necessary and in extreme circumstances, in-person visitation should remain open and have extra precautions to be taken so that COVID-19 is not spread, through the separation of glass and no physical touching. However, for now, the best the ACLU says the MDOC can do is allow video visitation to be made free of charge for all inmates, as it is in their basic rights to be visited by their loved ones during their sentence.