The coronavirus pandemic is taking a growing toll on the lives of state prison inmates.
As of May 10, 50 inmates have died after contracting the virus.
The Michigan Department of Corrections is trying to release as many people as possible in response. But a state law called Truth in Sentencing means only some will benefit from that effort.
Byron Tyree is serving a three-year sentence in Macomb Correctional Facility for meth manufacture and distribution. He has a parole date in hand – July 27 – more than two and a half months from now.
Testing at Macomb has been very limited. So no one knows how many inmates have COVID-19. But people are dying of it – five here so far.
“We're in here watching people die," says Tyree. "Somebody who last month you were just playing cards with, and they just fade away and die, out of nowhere."
Tyree says he has a clean disciplinary record, and he could be a free man today, if it weren’t for Truth in Sentencing. The state law requires inmates to serve every day of their minimum sentences, no matter what.
"I understand about Truth in Sentencing," Tyree says. "But we are not in a normal situation, the pandemic and stuff. So certain things I don’t understand, like why they are leaving us in here around sick people."
Truth in Sentencing in its current form eliminates so called “good time” credits – a way to shorten your minimum sentence by staying out of trouble, participating in programs like AA or anger management, getting a degree or learning a trade.
Chris Gautz is a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections. He says only about 4,000 out of the total prison population of about 38,000 have served their full minimum sentences and are parole eligible.
"The [parole] board is working around the clock to process these paroles," Gautz says. "Typically, the board averages anywhere from around 140 paroles per week, pre-COVID-19. Now the board averages about 200 to 220 paroles per week."
Advocates for inmates say that’s still too slow a pace in a pandemic, and leaves many inmates facing the prospect that their sentences could become death by default.
John Cooper is head of the prison reform group, Safe and Just Michigan. He says Governor Whitmer could temporarily suspend Truth in Sentencing. She has declined to do so.
"If there is no executive action, there’s not a lot more that the Department of Corrections can do," says Cooper.
Cooper says the pandemic lends urgency to a movement to repeal Truth in Sentencing. The law began as a citizen initiative during the tough on crime era in the late 1970s. It was dropped when prisons became overcrowded in the 80s. And it was brought back by the Michigan Legislature in 1998.
“All of these moves were ideologically driven by the idea that longer sentences are an effective public safety tool," says Cooper, "and the research doesn’t bear that out.”
Especially for sentences over ten years, he says, because older people are much less likely to commit crimes than younger ones.
But Matt Wiese of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan says Truth in Sentencing shouldn’t be scrapped.
"It gives certainty to crime victims, especially victims of violence," he says. And he says it helps prosecutors avoid courtroom game-playing by asking for longer sentences than they might otherwise, because they don't really know how much of a minimum sentence will be served.
He says the answer to pandemics isn’t to let people out early, but be better prepared the next time.
“Just like these other industries, the meat-packing industry, the nursing home communities, what we’re learning is we need to be better at screening, and making sure that we're not putting people who are higher risk in harm's way.”
But advocates say that's exactly what is happening now, especially for elderly inmates with medical conditions. In some of the prisons with very high COVID-19 infection rates, inmates are essentially trapped inside a coronavirus petri dish.
Amani Sawari is the statewide coordinator for a ballot initiative to repeal Truth in Sentencing. She says the tough on crime era was a huge mistake, and inmates are paying for it with their lives now.
"This is something that needs to happen for the health of our state and for the lives of the people who are currently incarcerated, "she says, "that don’t even have the freedom to protect themselves in the way the CDC recommends.”
But the petition drive faces an almost insurmountable obstacle. The governor’s stay-home order halted traditional face to face signature gathering. The drive is at least 200,000 signatures short, with a deadline of May 27.
Sawari says she asked the Secretary of State to reduce the number of signatures required to qualify for the November ballot, but that request was denied.
The petition drive has since filed a lawsuit seeking relief.