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Lawsuits & Litigation

Half of all Michigan Prisoners Test Positive for Coronavirus

— May 2, 2020

Inmates have filed a class action against the state, demanding better testing and more protection.

Novel coronavirus is spreading so quickly in Michigan prisons that nearly half of all inmates tested for the disease were found infected.

According to the Detroit Metro Times, the gross number of positive cases in Michigan prisons has more than quadrupled between April 12th and April 30th, rising from 335 to 1,412 in scarcely two weeks. During that same timeframe, coronavirus deaths increased eight-fold, from 8 to 41.

The Metro Times observes that, in all likelihood, the figures released thus far are but a preview of the extent to which coronavirus has spread in Michigan prisons: to date, fewer than 10% of inmates have been tested for coronavirus. That’s despite the high risk of transmission inherent to spaces in which people can’t people practice proper social distancing techniques.

And the results are showing: of the inmates who have been tested, 45.3% were confirmed positive for coronavirus infection.

It’s a staggering statistic, but one that’s scarcely surprising—and one that attorneys and activists could’ve predicted. notes that the scope of coronavirus exposure has prompted inmates from various Michigan prisons to file a class action against the state Department of Corrections.

Jail cell; image by Ichigo121212, via Pixaby, CC0.
Jail cell; image by Ichigo121212, via Pixaby, CC0.

The complaint—filed at the end of April, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan—accuses the MDOC of violating the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment by subjecting prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment.

“Despite the ticking time bomb that COVID-19 represents, MDOC has failed to implement necessary or adequate policies and practices throughout its prisons,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit, among other things, demands that Michigan significantly increase its testing within prisons—it asks that a judge order MDOC to test all inmates in its custody within 14 days. The class action also calls for corrections staff to regularly take inmates’ temperatures and check any prisoners who begin showing coronavirus-like symptoms.

“When you put people in prison, you take away their ability to take care of themselves,” said attorney Kevin Ernst, who’s working on the class action. “If you take away that ability, you have to provide care for them. Prisoners are not able to buy masks, soap, or isolate themselves. The state took that ability away from them and is now forcing them to be around COVID-positive inmates. The state has a duty to do something to protect them.”

The class action observes that high infection rates in the corrections system isn’t just a problem for prisoners—it can easily affect prison staff and consequently spill over into neighboring communities.

“An outbreak at any one prison can easily spread to the surrounding communities through prison and medical staff,” the suit says. “Time is running out for proper protections to be put into place.”

The lawsuit, echoing similar requests from across the country, also wants low-risk inmates to be temporarily released.

However, MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz says the lawsuit’s requests reflect the department’s own policy initiatives.

“The vast majority of things they’re asking us to do, we’ve already done,” Gautz said.

Gautz said that releasing inmates early isn’t an option, regardless of risk assessments. notes that Michigan law specifies that prisoners must serve minimum sentences before release.

“That would require us to violate state law,” Gautz said. “So that’s not happening.”

However, Gautz did say that the department has significantly increased parole approvals, averaging 200 to 220 paroles per week rather than the average 140.

Nevertheless, Victoria Burton-Harris—a defense attorney running for the position of Wayne County Prosecutor—says the prospect of death is a real one for many inmates with health- or age-related factors that make them especially susceptible to coronavirus.

“It is not acceptable for a jail sentence to become a death sentence,” Burton-Harris said. “Everyone has value. Everyone is worth saving. Everybody has a story. We are not the worst things we’ve ever done, and we certainly don’t deserve to die.”


Michigan prisoners call coronavirus exposure ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ in lawsuit

Nearly half of the inmates tested in Michigan prisons have coronavirus

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