Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault Activists Call for Stricter Prison Release Guidelines During COVID-19

As the novel coronavirus pandemic has spread across the world, the respiratory illness' hit to dense population areas has been especially devastating. And while rural areas are impacted, too, it's clear that maintaining ideal social distancing practices is vital to curb the disease's spread — something that's harder in populous areas.

"Keeping to more than one-meter distance between people coughing and sneezing, as recommended by the WHO, becomes more difficult with higher population-densities. Therefore, avoiding situations with higher population densities will be a necessary requirement to limit the spread of COVID-19," said a Swedish study from Umeå University.

But for populations of people who have to live in a communal setting like prisoners, that can be impossible.

"Only one sink has hot water, so we all line up tight to use it. We all eat together, four guys to a table. I don't have a cellmate right now and I'm trying to keep it that way, to keep a little distance," said Min Byung-Moon, an inmate in an Ontario prison. "There's no such thing as social distancing in here. That's not our reality."

And that lack of distancing has been the case outside of Canada, too. In the midwest, an Ohio prison has become one of the nation's hottest spots for the spread of COVID-19 and it's largely due to the unavoidable close contact inmates have with each other. And in Michigan, the state's Department of Corrections is facing a class-action lawsuit over the way it has handled the crisis. So far, of the roughly 37,000 prisoners, over 1,400 have been confirmed to have the virus and 41 have died in Michigan.

In an attempt to curb the virus's spread further, some states have taken to releasing prisoners early. Though that hasn't happened yet in Michigan, The Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence has warned that such an order could create dangerous situations for both former victims of such crimes and the general public.

"Our concern we have is that if we forget that perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence come in all age ranges and all health statuses and releasing somebody based on a health concern is the priority, we may be missing and losing track of the victim's safety and wellbeing through that," said MCEDSV Senior Program Director Erin Roberts. "And so, considering that even perpetrators of violence can be people who are physically unwell or may be older, they can still access and utilize power and control over their victims."


Only 5,000 Eligible

And as it stands today, the Michigan Department of Corrections does not have an "early release" system in place, but it has indeterminate sentencing, which means that most offenders are sentenced with both a minimum and maximum term. At the earliest possible release date, which is calculated by the court system, the Parole Board may deem an inmate eligible to be released "if the Board has a reasonable assurance the prisoner no longer poses a risk to the public."

"If the Parole Board does not parole the prisoner during their sentence, the prisoner will discharge from prison upon serving the maximum sentence. This date is called the Maximum Discharge," said the MDOC website. "Both dates are published on OTIS [Offender Tracking System] because both dates are very important to the prisoner's sentence. A prisoner may be paroled at any time between the minimum and maximum dates."

MDOC Public Information Officer Chris Gautz said that because of this policy, of the roughly 37,000 prisoners across Michigan, there are only 5,000 "who are technically eligible" because only those who are aged 60 or older are being considered for release due to illness.

"And so, what we have started doing is we started cross-referencing them — the 5,000 — with prisoners over the age of 60 and/or who have medically compromised immune systems or have chronic care conditions — things like that — and we started looking again at those paroles," Gautz said. "It's hard to not use the term 'early release,' because these are prisoners who have served their minimum but there's no such thing as 'early release' in Michigan prisons."

Gautz added that normally, once someone is denied parole it takes a year before the Parole Board will examine the inmate's case again. In light of COVID-19, many inmates' cases are being looked at with health risks in mind.

"But we're not releasing anyone that the board feels would be a danger to society. So, even if we find a 55-year-old prisoner who has cancer, we're not going to release that person because based on those criteria they might be prone to get the virus," he said. "We're not going to release them if the board still feels like they would still be a danger and a harm to society if they were released because of whatever crimes they committed or whatever issues they were having."

However, paroles have increased overall. During normal circumstances, Gautz said that there are roughly 140 paroles across Michigan. During the pandemic, there have been between 200 and 220 per week.


An Imperfect System

Roberts said that as in-depth and lengthy as a Parole Board review may be, however, it's clear that there are cases where paroled inmates have gone on to commit crimes against their former victims of violence. She cited an example case of MCEDSV's Staff Attorney Heath Lowry.

"Spurred by COVID-19, the jail released the perpetrator for 'time served,' despite assurances to the contrary by the Sheriff's office in the preceding days. The abuser was released seven weeks from the date of sentencing — he received a six-month sentence but served just a mere fraction of the limited justice my client received. He was not even able to complete the reformatory classes as required at sentencing," Jordan said. "With the limited time served and limited access to reformatory resources, he poses a clear threat to my client's safety. We are taking all steps possible to safety plan with her, but it would all be avoidable if meaningful and diligent review took place before release."

MCEDSV Survivor Law Clinic Senior Program Manager Elinor Jordan also provided a statement calling it "negligent" to release inmates who still pose a threat to former domestic violence and sexual assault victims.

"In my client's case, the abuser's violent attack included an attempt to run her down with his vehicle, which she narrowly escaped with her life," Jordan said. "At trial, the judge was dismayed by the unavailability to impose a longer sentence, but the plea bargain between the prosecuting attorney and defense attorney reduced the crime to a domestic violence misdemeanor."

When asked about the steps the Michigan Parole Board takes to secure a release, Gautz said that the process was lengthy and thorough and that each decision starts with a case-by-case examination in order to avoid as many instances of recidivism as possible.

"We don't have a quota; we don't have a number that we're trying to hit. Every case is individual, because when you look at these cases that maybe say that they were convicted of a nonviolent assault but when we look at the actual file we can see that they just had a really good attorney or that maybe there was a plea deal because maybe the crime was actually very violent but they got it reduced down to a nonviolent sentence, we have to take all those things and actually look at the crisis and not what they were sentenced for," Gautz said. "You have to take that into account."

But the Parole Board can only do so much. Ultimately, a greater amount of effective inmate rehabilitation programs would offer longer-term solutions. Roberts said that she doesn't have any advice for prisons and jails to implement programs like these because that's not her specialty, but she makes the point that domestic violence shelters are suffering from many of the same COVID-19 overcrowding concerns as correctional facilities that could be temporarily exacerbated by more releases.

"That challenge right there is unique to this work in my lifetime here, and, certainly, in the movement to end domestic and sexual violence. We have shelters that were at capacity when COVID-19 came around, and that doesn't mean six feet of social distance space in many shelters," Roberts said. "So they're already having to figure out very similar things, and what they're not doing is sending victims out onto the streets.

Gautz made sure to emphasize that each inmate who is released does not pose a public health threat and should not be "looked at with a scarlet letter" because of their health status.

"We've done everything we can to practice social distancing outside of the immediate living area. And so, just like when you go to the grocery store now, there's likely markers showing you where six feet to stay apart is when you're in line and things like that," he said. "… We are also making sure that we are testing every person who comes out on parole for COVID-19 before they're released, and if they test positive, we aren't releasing them. We keep them with us for at least 14 days until they can be medically cleared and are past that contagious stage, so that we're not just dumping people out because we don't want them within our system. We are taking a very cautious approach so that we're not spreading it out into the community."


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