This week Outlier’s Joey Horan published, in Bridge Magazine, an investigation into the Michigan Department of Corrections’ response to COVID-19. He found MDOC is using solitary confinement-like conditions for pandemic control and cutting off family visitation, but they are not engaging in widespread testing of prison staff. These policies mean the COVID-19 outbreaks in Michigan’s prisons are among the worst in the country. Horan spoke to dozens of people incarcerated at three prisons across the state; The Thumb, Huron Valley, and Gus Harrison. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
SA: I want to start from the beginning. Tell me how you started this story.
JH: Two mothers came through the text messaging system, just expressing concern, both not knowing really what was going on inside and not knowing what the response [of MDOC] was. And in the course of my reporting, both of their sons got sick and tested positive for the virus. I heard about a near-riot over COVID test results at Gus Harrison. So then I started talking to more people at Gus who were being punished. From there I started talking to people about instances of solitary confinement being used because people were sick. I also started talking to Lois Pullano who runs the MDOC Family Advisory Board. She had been getting a lot of calls about solitary being used for people who were suspected of having COVID.
SA: You point out in your piece that visitation was shut down in early March as were transfers between prisons. Mass testing of inmates happened but guards still aren’t getting tested unless there is an outbreak-and this is a new policy as of last week. Even though it was not inmates who brought the virus into the facilities you talked to a lot of people who said they felt like they were being punished. People said medical isolation without any possessions felt just like solitary confinement.
JH: When you’re in prison the threat of punishment and loss of privileges hangs over everything you do. That’s just the general thing I need people to understand. The things that you have to live for in prison are your family visiting, the classes you can take, your yard time, your access to the gym, you know. Those things immediately get taken away when you’re not cooperative with officers or in this case, during a pandemic when every movement needs to shut down. And even pieces of property that we think are so insignificant, a little tiny TV that you need to plug headphones in to watch, people save for months or years. If they get moved to a solitary cell for medical isolation and their TV goes missing or it’s broken in the process, that piece of property is so important. These little freedoms that we take for granted have outsized importance in prison. The fear of losing them weighs over every interaction that people have with power in this setting.
SA: So the state is not doing all it can to control the virus in prisons. But really, what would it take?
JH: So most public health experts would say the only realistic way to control the virus from spreading would be a massive release program to reduce population density in prisons. That would require the Governor to suspend Truth in Sentencing. That falls to the Governor and is a whole political minefield. The MDOC really has done everything they can do under current law to release people eligible for parole. So that is number one, relaxing strict sentencing laws. Number two is a regular mass testing program of guards and staff. MDHHS is the agency that can mandate the testing and the terms of the testing but of course, there are budgetary concerns there-so the accountability is with the legislature too and it’s a financial cost. The MDOC was able to do mass testing of prisoners because the National Guard was there to help.
SA: Why wasn’t staff tested at that time?
JH: Exactly. If the national guard is at each facility testing every single prisoner that’s the time to test the guards. The union told me they were not approached by MDOC about testing. But, there was resistance from the union and prison staff to get tested because they were not guaranteed paid leave. At the same time, they were getting extra hazard pay to show up to work.
SA: I know you weren’t able to include the voices and experiences of as many incarcerated people as you wanted to in this story. Why do you think it’s important to hear directly from these people?
JH: The MDOC will tell you what their policies are. Those can look okay, but it’s only from hearing from people that you understand how those policies play out. Even the power that people are supposed to have, the autonomy they are supposed to have within this kind of system is taken away so often. And, people inside these prisons have very little ability to advocate for themselves through the internal grievance system. And it’s just the basic level of humanity when you hear directly from these individuals. People then become-you know-people rather than crimes.
SA: I think it’s easy to get overwhelmed by stories that are about systemic breakdowns at every level. If you’re not connected to somebody who is already incarcerated where are those pressure points for accountability?
JH: The prison code is ultimately determined by the legislature, and who ends up in prison is determined by your local prosecutor. There is a bill that Stephanie Chang just introduced to shine a brighter light on how solitary confinement is used. There are so many organizations working towards transforming prisons so following them and connecting to them lets you know what is happening. The prison is the part that is very closed off but there are a lot of minor political choices that we as citizens make that we might not pay much attention to that are part of this process.
This conversation was published originally in our monthly newsletter In the House. You can subscribe here.