April, 2020 - Safe & Just Michigan

Statement from
Safe & Just Michigan Executive Director
John Cooper on Gov. Whitmer’s
COVID-19 Jails and
Juvenile Detention Centers Order

In March, Safe & Just Michigan joined with the ACLU of Michigan and American Friends Service Committee – Michigan Criminal Justice Program to urge Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Michigan Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington to take urgent action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan prisons. Each organization sent letters to the government officials urging several concrete actions that could be taken to prevent the spread of disease and save lives. In addition, Safe & Just Michigan Executive Director John S. Cooper issued the following statement after Gov. Whitmer took actions targeted to limit the spread of COVID-19 in jails and juvenile detention centers, but that left behind prisons:

“We are very pleased to see Gov. Gretchen Whitmer act decisively to limit the potential spread of COVID-19 in prisons, jails and juvenile facilities as the state responds to this ongoing public health crisis. Correctional facilities are confined, communal spaces that pose special risks of the spread of COVID-19 not only to incarcerated people, but to staff and the surrounding community as well. Steps to reduce intake to correctional facilities and expedite releases from them are important to managing these risks, as are heightened sanitation protocols, and we believe that this executive order will ultimately help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and save lives.

“However, there is more that can be done to lower risks — particularly within the prison system, which has seen infections of inmates and staff reported at a number of facilities in recent days. Michigan Department of Corrections officials have been proactive and transparent about notifying the public of these developments and in detailing the steps being taken to mitigate risk within Michigan’s prisons; however, releases — whether through parole or commutation — have not been part of the department’s mitigation strategy to date. We encourage the governor’s office to work with the parole board and MDOC administration to identify good candidates for release in Michigan's prisons and expedite releases as part of the state’s broader COVID-19 containment strategy.”

Evidence for Public Support for
Decarceration Amid Covid-19

The COVID-19 crisis presents an unprecedented challenge to our country that touches on all aspects of our society, including the criminal justice system. Knowing that there is broad public support for taking steps to protect incarcerated people in Michigan prisons will help us advise state decision-makers, and helps those elected leaders feel confident as they make their choices.

Recent research conducted by Data for Progress tested public support for the kinds of recommendations that Safe & Just Michigan, along with ACLU of Michigan and American Friends Service Committee – Michigan Criminal Justice Program, have signed on to. The Data for Progress survey found support for three of the major recommendations we have proposed.

The first proposal, to provide adequate hygiene supplies to incarcerated people, has the highest level of support, at more than 80 percent. The second and third proposals — for the release of the elderly and the the release of the medically vulnerable — both received less support than the provision of hygiene supplies, but more than 50 percent support.

As Safe & Just Michigan’s Executive Director John S. Cooper said when we joined with the ACLU of Michigan and the AFSC-Michigan:

“…we are working to ensure that decision-makers are aware of the risks a pandemic pose to people in jails and prisons, and of best practices in reducing these risks. To that end, we have signed on to letters from partner organizations with recommendations that were sent to the Michigan Department of Corrections, all 83 county sheriffs (who oversee Michigan’s jails), as well as the governor’s policy and legal staff, the National Governors Association, the National Sheriff’s Association, and the U.S. Conference of  Mayors.”

The research conducted by Data for Progress was examining public opinion around The Justice Collaborative’s Covid-19 Decarceral Guidelines. Many of the recommendations included in these guidelines mirror the recommendations supported by Safe & Just Michigan. This includes the provision of hygiene supplies and the release of the elderly and medically compromised.

Provision of Hygiene Supplies

In our joint letter with the ACLU of Michigan and AFSC-Michigan to Gov. Witmer and MDOC Director Heidi Washington, we advocated that:

“The most basic aspect of infection control is hygiene. There must be ready access to warm water and adequate hygiene supplies, both for handwashing and for cleaning. You have been very responsive when we’ve contacted you about reports from prisoners that not enough soap is available for handwashing, and we appreciate MDOC’s prompt responses. To ensure ongoing access to necessary hygiene supplies we ask that you set up mechanisms for monitoring that the proper number of cleaning supplies are being made available.”

Data for Progress asked over 2,500 likely voters if they supported a variety of initiatives to reduce the prison and jail population, as well as to improve living conditions for those who are incarcerated. Related to the provision of hygiene supplies, Data for Progress asked respondents if they would support or oppose the following proposals:

Following Center for Disease Control sanitation and cleanliness standards, which would include providing soap, CDC-recommended hand sanitizer, medical care, comprehensive sanitation and cleaning of facilities and other safety measures.
Data for Progress weighted the results to accurately reflect U.S. demographics and voting patterns. The results here have been further condensed for ease of interpretation. The results show clear cross-ideological support for the provision of hygiene supplies for those who are incarcerated.

The survey showed that overall, 82 percent of respondents supported the proposal, including 88 percent of liberal respondents, 77 percent of moderates, and 82 percent of conservatives. Overall, 8 percent did not support, including 6 percent of liberals, 8 percent of moderates and 8 percent of conservatives. Responding “I don’t know” were 10 percent of all respondents, including 6 percent of liberals, 14 percent of moderates and 10 percent of conservatives.

It’s notable that there is a low level of opposition —more respondents were “unsure” than opposing it.

Vulnerable Populations

Further in our letter, we advocated for the release of these incarcerated people who have an elevated risk of developing serious complications if they contract the virus.

“The plan must provide for additional precautions for those who are at high risk of serious illness if they are infected, such as pregnant women and people with underlying conditions, including heart disease, pulmonary disease or diabetes, compromised immune systems, or disabilities, and people whose housing placements restrict their access to medical care and limit the staff’s ability to observe them. We urge MDOC to consider alternatives to incarceration for populations who could be at increased risk in the event of an outbreak, including working with the parole board and governor to expedite medical parole and clemency where appropriate.”

Similar to our request for the release of those at risk of serious illness, Data for Progress asked these two questions that focus on the subpopulations of concern. First, respondents were asked if they would support or oppose “releasing incarcerated people who are elderly and do not pose a serious risk to public safety, because the Center for Disease Control estimates that the elderly are more vulnerable to the coronavirus and have higher rates of mortality than younger people.”

The survey found overall support of 58 percent for the proposal. Liberals were most likely to support, at 69 percent, and moderates least likely to support, at 54 percent, with 55 percent of conservatives supporting. Overall, 14 percent of respondents opposed, including 20 percent of liberals, 19 percent of moderates and 33 percent of conservatives. Those saying “I don’t know” included 28 percent of all respondents: 11 percent of liberals, 28 percent of moderates, and 11 percent of conservatives.

Next, respondents were asked if they would support or oppose “releasing incarcerated people who the Center for Disease Control has classified as vulnerable populations including those with asthma, cancer, heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes who do not pose a serious risk to public safety.”

The proposal found support among 53 percent of respondents: 65 percent of liberals, 48 percent of moderates, and 48 percent of conservatives. Thirty-two percent opposed it overall, including 11 percent of liberals, 32 percent of moderates, and 14 percent of conservatives. Those saying “don’t know” comprised 15 percent of all respondents: 23 percent of liberals, 20 percent of moderates and 38 percent of conservatives.

While levels of support for these proposed responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are lower than the wide support observed above for providing hygiene supplies, the large percent of respondents who replied they “don’t know” suggest they have not decided to oppose the proposal, which indicates there could be room to inform and educate. Those who have served long sentences in prison have the lowest recidivism rates and pose little to no threat to public safety.

At Safe & Just Michigan we have long supported and worked for the release of the elderly and medically frail. The current pandemic makes the need for these releases more urgent than ever.

Catch Up on the Day of Empathy

We hope you were able to join us March 25 for the Day of Empathy. If you weren't able to join us for our four-video learning sessions we held that day, don’t worry. We've recorded them and placed them on our YouTube channel, so you can watch them anytime you like:

Clean Slate:
Pregnancy in Prison - Standards of Care:
A Conversation with Aswad Thomas of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice:
Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration:

We also want to thank our co-sponsors who made the event possible: AFSC Michigan Criminal Justice Program, A.R.R.O., Citizens for Prison Reform, Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, Michigan Center for Youth Justice, Michigan Faith in Action, Nation Outside, Still Standing Against Domestic Violence/Redeemed, University of Michigan Carceral State Project and University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project. Our national partner was #Cut50.

Finally, we’d like to add that empathy and compassion are free and unlimited resources. The Day of Empathy only comes once a year, but we can empathize with each other every day. Especially in times like these, when so many people are worried about the future and afraid for their loved ones who are incarcerated, empathy and kindness are truly needed.

Rethinking Commutations

With the COVID-19 crisis, Safe & Just Michigan — like many other organizations — is learning to do things differently. While this has been challenging in many ways, one upside has been that we’re learning to make a better use of technology to deliver educational opportunities.

On April 15, we brought together state and national commutations experts to talk about Michigan’s system of commutations. They discussed how the system works — and how it’s broken. Special attention was given to how commutations might be used during the COVID-19 crisis to address the growing problem of the spread of infection inside Michigan prisons. Most importantly, the panel talked about how to fix problems within the system.

The panel was moderated by Safe & Just Michigan Executive Director John S. Cooper. Participants included:

Demetrius Titus - Commutation recipient and Good Neighbor Project Director at AFSC - Michigan Criminal Justice Program 
Mark Osler - National commutations expert and St. Thomas University Law Professor
Paul Reingold - Civil rights attorney and University of Michigan Clinical Professor Emeritus

If you weren’t able to join us, the panel discussion can be viewed on our YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/mkKS_sZE4Oo.

Upcoming Event:
The Truth About Truth in Sentencing

We’re following up our event on commutations with another learning event on Michigan’s strict “truth in sentencing” law. The law not only requires people in prison to serve 100 percent of their minimum sentence before becoming eligible for parole, it also hampers efforts to get people at risk of developing complications from COVID-19 from being released from prison during the current crisis.

The discussion will be moderated by Safe & Just Michigan Executive Director John Cooper. Panelists include:

Jessica Zimbelman, Assistant Defender, State Appellate Defender Office
Amani Sawari, a Roddenberry Foundation fellow who is leading an effort to repeal Michigan’s Truth in Sentencing law
Anne Mahar, Ph.D., research specialist for Safe & Just Michigan

This panel discussion will take place Wednesday, April 29 at noon and is free to join. To register and get the Zoom link, visit https://bit.ly/sjmtruth

If you’re not able to join us that day, we will be posting it to our YouTube channel a day or two later.

Visit our website at
www.safeandjustmi.org. If you would like to join Safe & Just Michigan’s efforts, please contact us at
info@safeandjustmi.rg or sign up for our electronic communications at