Detroit Free Press: Coronavirus is changing life for Michigan prisoners, too. Here’s how.

By Angie Jackson

People with a loved one in prison in Michigan are catching a slight break when it comes to paying for phone calls and emails while visitation is suspended in response to concerns about the coronavirus. 

Prisoners within the Michigan Department of Corrections were informed Monday that the agency’s vendor for phone services, Global Tel Link Corporation, is offering two free, five-minute phone calls to prisoners each week. Call rates are 16 cents per minute. 

Additionally, corrections spokesman Chris Gautz said the email service JPay is offering two free stamps per week, covering the cost of two emails. Each email requires one stamp, which cost $5 for 20, $10 for 50, or $20 for 100.

On Friday, agency officials announced that they had halted visitations at all 30 facilities, which house 37,946 prisoners. 

Two MDOC employees had tested positive for the coronavirus as of Tuesday. One of the employees is a Jackson County probation agent. The other works at the Detroit Detention Center, which operates under an agreement between MDOC and the Detroit Police Department to detain adults arrested by Detroit police before their arraignment. 

Gautz said no prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19. 

Here are other changes the agency says its staff has implemented in response to the coronavirus outbreak in Michigan. 

Sanitizing cells: The use of bleach is typically restricted in the prisons except during flu outbreaks, Gautz said. Bleach was authorized at all facilities last week. A man incarcerated at Macomb Correctional Facility in Lenox Township told the Free Press that prisoners have been able to ask staff for bleach to sanitize their personal space. MDOC said additional soap is being provided for prisoners and in the bathrooms. “All prisoners have access to soap,” the department wrote in a Q&A.

Smaller groups: Gautz said the facilities are cutting down on the number of prisoners who are around one another at one time. Fewer people will go to meals together, he said, and they will be assigned seats farther away from one another. The same changes apply to classroom settings. 

Release of prisoners: MDOC says it’s continuing to process paroles and release prisoners. Relatives may still pick their loved one up from prison, but they can’t wait for them in the lobby. They may drop off a change of clothes to the front desk officer. 

Parole hearings: The parole board has postponed public hearings for life-sentence cases and commutations. The board will continue parole interviews via video conference. Prisoners are legally allowed to have a representative — a relative, friend or another supporter — accompany them during the interview. To enter the facility, the prisoner’s representative will be subject to the same screening process as staff and attorneys: a temperature check and questions about potential exposure to the coronavirus. 

Programming: The indefinite suspension of visitation means that in-person college courses and volunteer-led programs such as the Prison Creative Arts Project are on pause. Gautz said officials are talking with schools that offer higher education courses about whether prisoners can continue their work via correspondence and possibly video conferencing.

Substance abuse programming can continue because it’s a requirement for some individuals’ eligibility for parole, but some contractors have declined to enter the prison during the COVID-19 outbreak, Gautz said. He said hundreds of prisoners could potentially see their parole dates pushed back if contractors suspend substance abuse services. “Because of that, we know that paroles are going to be delayed,” Gautz said. “We know we will have an increased numbers of prisoners. Our prisoner count is going to go up at some point.”

Testing for COVID-19: Health care staff will meet with prisoners who have symptoms of the virus, but MDOC cannot make a diagnosis of COVID-19. The local health department in the county where the person is incarcerated would decide whether to have them tested. MDOC says co-pays will be waived for any prisoner being tested.

Advocates petition for prisoners’ early release

A number of advocacy organizations are pushing for the early release of individuals most vulnerable to COVID-19 from Michigan’s prisons and jails.

“It is a time to do everything we can to ensure that we minimize the effects of this pandemic by pouring our resources into ensuring everyone has access to adequate care,” the Neighborhood Defender Service, State Appellate Defender Officer, Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association and Detroit Justice Center said in a joint statement. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, a petition calling on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to take executive action and commute the prison sentences of “long-serving elderly people and vulnerable and chronically sick people” had garnered 725 signatures. 

The American Friends Service Committee is one of the organizations backing the petition. Natalie Holbrook, program director of AFSC’s Michigan Criminal Justice Program, said the effort is “symbolic” and aligns with similar campaigns in other states in response to the pandemic. 

“For people who are ill and sick or elderly already, it doesn’t make sense for them to be confined in that space and taken care of by the state when they could be taken care of by their loved ones,” Holbrook said.