Report criticizes prisons nationwide over COVID-19, Michigan DOC touts testing, PPE

Michigan ranks 2nd-best in country, despite low score

By: - July 13, 2020 5:08 pm

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A new report from the Prison Policy Initiative has graded Michigan’s response to the state’s COVID-19 outbreak as a “D-,” although all other states besides Tennessee are ranked even lower than Michigan.

The Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) is pushing back hard against the report. A spokesperson says a good score would be virtually impossible to achieve, given the initiative’s chosen metrics.

The grading scale is based on a set of factors including a state’s COVID-19 data transparency, the number of prisoners released from county jails and state prisons, how many inmates and staffers received testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) and whether the state accelerated the release of medically vulnerable inmates and/or those near the end of their sentence.

The group’s aim is to highlight how deeply COVID-19 has impacted prisons across the country. The confined living spaces of correctional facilities make outbreak prevention efforts like social distancing especially challenging, posing a heightened risk to inmates.

Michigan also has a disproportionately elderly prison population compared to other states, meaning a higher portion of inmates are particularly vulnerable to serious complications from COVID-19.

Despite receiving a low grade of 25.82 out of 485 points, Michigan ranks second-best in the report compared to other states’ handling of COVID-19 in prisons. Most other states received an F+; 12 received an F score. Wyoming scored the lowest overall with 8.15.

“This is not an effort to seriously examine how states are handling COVID in prisons,” DOC spokesperson Chris Gautz told the Advance. “It’s an effort to generate headlines and say that they’re doing bad and have people look at their report, and maybe donate to their organization. … There’s no legitimate rationale or examination that’s being done with this report.”

The report was done by the Massachusetts-based Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that supports reforming the criminal justice system to end mass incarceration, in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Campaign for Smart Justice.

A Michigan ACLU spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

As of Monday, the Michigan DOC reports that 3,801 DOC prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19 — around 10% of the nearly 37,600 total prisoners tested. The DOC completed its first round of prisoner testing in late May, making Michigan one of the first states in the country to complete mass testing of all state prisoners.

The report notes that only five states including Michigan have met that achievement so far. Despite that positive metric. However, Michigan is not one of the three states listed in the report that have instituted the same measures for all state correctional staff.

The staff COVID-19 cases listed on the DOC’s page still leave out important testing benchmarks, including the number of tests overall, pending tests, negative tests and “recovered” staffers. The state employs around 13,000 staffers at its correctional facilities. Three DOC staffers have died and 385 have tested positive for COVID-19 so far.

The largest share of each state’s score — more than 60% of their grade –  comes from how much they reduced prisoner populations. Michigan received a meager 33.08 points out of 300 on this indicator, which caused the biggest blow to the state’s overall grade.

Gautz says the department takes the most offense to this metric.

To get a perfect score, “you’d have to release 75% of everyone who’s in jail currently, and you’d have to release 75% of all prisoners in your state, which is not even allowed under the law,” Gautz said.

Gautz said that aside from releasing people from prison, which the department sometimes has little control over thanks to Michigan’s strict mandatory minimum sentence laws, the department also does not have control of the governor’s executive orders.

Furthermore, Gautz says the state’s county jails are not controlled by the DOC, so that aspect is out of their control as well.

But Gautz does agree with the intent of the report overall, which he says is an understandable distrust in the view that more incarceration is a good thing.

“I get that people don’t like prisons. I think Michigan has always been a little bit different in the fact that in some ways, we agree, and we have not been shy about closing prisons when we’re able to,” Gautz said.

“We see the closing of prisons as a success, because our mission is to correct behavior and return people back to society. … Some states think you should have private prisons — we don’t. We think for-profit prisons and profiting off of people being in prison is terrible.”

He added that this makes it particularly frustrating to be lumped in with other states that see the core function of prisons much differently than Michigan does.

“In terms of transparency, I think we’re right at the top, and we did score very well in that regard,” Gautz added. “And in fact, we did score pretty well in all of those other metrics that they talked about that aren’t related to releasing people from prison.”

“It has never been clearer that mass incarceration is a public health issue,” the Prison Policy Initiative report reads. “As of today, states have largely failed this test, but it’s not too late for our elected officials to show that they can learn from their mistakes and do better.”

Michigan achieved a perfect score for providing PPE to all inmates and staff, as well as making regularly-updated COVID-19 data available. Full points were awarded for the state completing comprehensive inmate testing, but points were deducted for the DOC not providing information on staff testing.

The state received less than half of possible points for the “executive orders” category, as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s orders pertaining to halted jail admissions and release of vulnerable inmates weren’t deemed strong enough.

Michigan’s reduction in its statewide incarcerated population fell far short of the allotted points (as did all other states). The DOC achieved a 2.8% reduction in its prisons, while county jail populations fell by 27.48% — notably, only using data from nine jails — constituting a total of 33.08 points out of a possible 300 in this category.

Michigan’s raw score of 143.08 out of 485 was normalized to 29.5 out of 100 points, after which the score received a deduction of 3.68 points for prison deaths (-1 point for every 5 deaths out of 10,000 prisoners).

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).