It's not clear how many county jails are following the Michigan Supreme Court's urging to reduce the number of inmates, but the Washtenaw County Jail has been ahead of the curve, according to Sheriff Jerry Clayton.
Early in March, the jail implemented a system to control the spread of the coronavirus among the incarcerated population, with temperature checks and health screenings for incoming offenders, and access to testing for anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19.
The policy included an increase in access to soap and water for handwashing, as well as towels and disinfectants for cleaning surfaces.
The jail also dramatically reduced its population, to allow for easier social distancing, and to protect released inmates from being potentially exposed to the virus.
From a high of 332 on March 1, the inmate population now stands at 147. "And the 147 population we have now is the lowest I've ever seen in Washtenaw County and I've been around almost 35 years," says Clayton.
The sheriff's office sought agreements with local judges and prosecutors about which inmates could be released without posing a threat to the public. Older offenders, inmates with medical conditions, those with short sentences, and those with bonds under $1,000 were among some of those released.
"I've always questioned whether the number of people that are incarcerated in our jail really need to be in our jail," says Clayton. "Do they really pose a physical risk? Do they pose a risk to public safety? So, what I see now is we're practicing some things in this era of covid that I think could still be practiced when covid is over, whenever that might be."
The jail has also been transparent about its COVID-19 policies. Its website includes a link to a special COVID-19 dashboard, showing how many inmates are in the general population, and how many are in precautionary observation, quarantine, or medical isolation.
Currently, 24 individuals are in precautionary observation, housed in single cells for a period of time up to two weeks, and 11 are in medical isolation after testing positive for COVID-19.
Michigan Radio reached out to a number of other county sheriffs to ask about COVID-19 policies and practices, including the Jackson County Sheriff, Kent County Sheriff, Wayne County Sheriff, Monroe County Sheriff, Oakland County Sheriff, and Macomb County Sheriff, but none of them returned the calls.
Inmates at some other county jails have complained of overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, little access to testing, as well as lack of soap and water and disinfectant.
That includes the Wayne County Jail, and the Oakland County Jail.
The ACLU and other legal advocacy groups have sued Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard, alleging a failure to provide basic protections for inmates to prevent the spread of COVID-19, inhumane treatment of the sick, as well as a refusal to test individuals showing symptoms of the illness.
That lawsuit also seeks a court order forcing the Oakland County Jail to release elderly inmates and those with medical conditions.