Erin Perry joins Outlier Media as Managing Editor


“Erin is a journalism veteran who has not only worked in local news but studied how to make it better, more responsive, and more representative. Erin is bringing deep knowledge in editorial process design and news editing. Erin’s work will allow us to add more high-quality news products that will inform Detroiters of Outlier’s existing work.” Sarah Alvarez, Editor-in-Chief Outlier Media.

Outlier Media is pleased to announce that Erin Perry (she/her) has joined Outlier as Managing Editor. Her experience includes stints with the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington D.C.; Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia; The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk; Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Akron Beacon Journal in Ohio; and most recently, the Detroit Free Press, as a writer and editor. 

In her six years at the Free Press, she directed more than 1,000 students in Michigan’s largest scholastic journalism program of its kind. She trained high school journalists from Detroit public schools, leading them in producing a monthly citywide student publication during the school year. She returns each summer to continue in her decade-long role directing the Detroit Free Press Summer Apprentice Program for high school students and graduates – the program that helped launch her career some 20 years ago. She has trained more than 100 students to be reporters at this major market daily publication.

A practitioner-scholar, Perry is also a Ph.D. candidate and Dean’s Diversity Fellow at Wayne State, where she studies the effects of new media – communication using computers or technology – on the journalism profession, journalism audiences and journalism education.

“Erin is a journalism veteran who has not only worked in local news but studied how to make it better, more responsive, and more representative. Erin is bringing deep knowledge in editorial process design and news editing. Erin’s work will allow us to add more high-quality news products that will inform Detroiters of Outlier’s existing work,” Sarah Alvarez, Editor-in-Chief Outlier Media. 

Perry is a proud member of the Detroit Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., where she serves on the Public Relations Committee as a strategic planning consultant, after having served as chapter journalist.

Today we are also announcing the first members of our Advisory Board. Vincent McCraw (Report for America/NABJ Detroit President), Katyln Alo (San Francisco Chronicle/former data reporter Outlier Media) and Dick Tofel (outgoing president of ProPublica) will advise the Outlier team on editorial and growth strategy. “We are grateful to have these talented journalists join us as we work this year to grow from a fiscally sponsored project to a non-profit that Detroiters can depend on for the many years to come,” Candice Fortman Executive Editor Outlier Media. 

Build for a crisis: ideas for the future of local news


By Sarah Alvarez

When a terrible winter storm and widespread utility failures hit Texas last month we were happy to see local newsrooms in the state work to get people the information they needed to survive during the outages. Local news can be an essential service in this way every day, providing information that helps people meet their challenges and achieve their goals. Unfortunately for many local communities, this orientation in local news is the exception, not the rule.

At Outlier, we are and always have been built to provide essential information as local news. We believe for local news to have a future, it has to be built for people when they truly need information before it is built for people when they are just curious. We offer here our first white paper on how local news can be an essential service by working first to meet local information needs. 

We offer the experiences we have gathered over almost five years not to be prescriptive of limitations for what local news can be. Instead, we offer the lessons we have learned and the projects we learn from only as a place to build from when trying to create more value with local news and information services. 

If you have thoughts to share or initiatives you think we should know about, please get in touch with us at,, or @media_outlier

(To download this report click on the arrows in the upper right-hand corner of the .pdf viewer below.)

Is bureaucracy or public safety keeping MDOC’s parole numbers down?


By Joey Horan and Tom Brouns, special to Outlier Media

February 25, 2021

Angela Spangler expected her partner, Justin Eskildsen, to be released from Marquette Branch Prison on January 9. He had served his minimum sentence, nearly two years, and had been granted parole.

But as that date crept closer, Eskildsen sensed something was off — he hadn’t received any paperwork detailing his release. At the end of December, he called home to let Spangler and their four kids know he wouldn’t be out on the 9th. 

“It was devastating,” said Spangler, who lives in Grand Haven. “You count on somebody to be here and everything’s all set. Now we’re stuck, we can’t do anything, we don’t even know when he’s going to get released now.”

The reason for Eskildsen’s delay: he had not completed a course recommended to him by the parole board. He was halfway through the course when a massive COVID-19 outbreak swept through the prison in October, infecting nearly 90 percent of the population and putting all classes on indefinite hold.

Nearly 250 incarcerated Michiganders are caught in similar limbo. The parole board won’t release them until they complete their coursework, but their coursework has been significantly delayed due to COVID-19 outbreaks in prisons across the state. The Michigan Department of Corrections would not confirm the exact number of people in this situation. In early January, the number was reported as “more than 240” by Deadline Detroit

Chris Gautz, an MDOC spokesperson, did say that classrooms present a heightened risk of virus transmission because prisoners from different housing units who are otherwise separated throughout the day congregate there.

Gautz said prison officials are now working to organize class cohorts by housing unit. He also said MDOC is exploring virtual classes.

“We’re trying as hard as we can to get people through those classes,” Gautz said. “What we won’t do is change the standard of parole.”

Quarterly reports issued by MDOC show the parole board released fewer people in 2020 than it did in each of the previous three years. 

Gautz explained that the decrease in paroles is because there are currently fewer people in prison — 33,000 — than in previous years. “The number of prisoners who are eligible for parole has continued to decline as our population declines,” Gautz said.

Jacqueline Williams is not satisfied by this explanation. She prepares incarcerated Michiganders for the parole process for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization that operates the Michigan Criminal Justice Program. Williams believes prisons should be releasing more people than typical considering the severity of the pandemic in the state’s prisons.

“The parole board is operating as a sort of business as usual model,” Williams said. “I believe that the state as a whole, if they would really like to complete and carry out their mission of trying to provide public-safety, that they really need to understand the depth of what that means.”

When a recommendation is now a requirement

More than two-thirds of Michigan’s prison population — more than 23,000 people — have caught COVID-19 and 138 people have died from the virus as of February 24. Nearly 4,000 prison staff have caught the virus, and four have died.

Williams said Eskildsen’s case particularly troubled her because the course delaying his release was recommended, rather than required, and unrelated to his current charge. Eskildsen is serving time for driving while intoxicated, but he’s being held up by a delay in a domestic violence prevention course. 

MDOC declined to provide Outlier with the number of people awaiting release because of recommended, rather than required, programming.

“I can understand if it was a totally related case,” said Eskildsen, who has previously been charged with misdemeanor domestic violence. “But they’re holding me up for something I already served time for, that’s part of my past.”

While Eskildsen’s parole has been delayed because of coursework, Outlier reviewed other cases where parole was denied outright because of incomplete coursework. A parole denial typically results in a person waiting another year before seeing the parole board again.

Chrystal Baker at the Women’s Huron Valley Prison was denied parole because she had not completed a required substance abuse class. 

Baker’s denial stated that “programming is not available in the community and the risk cannot be adequately managed in the community before completion.” The prison, however, has not offered substance abuse coursework since March of 2020, said Baker.

Baker’s husband, Ted, also said he provided the parole board with proof of available substance abuse programming in their hometown of Port Huron. Gautz of MDOC said the Parole Board does allow certain programs, including substance abuse classes, to be completed in the community. 

“The classes are here,” Ted Baker said. “I went to Sacred Heart myself and got the package and I sent it to the parole board.”

Both Bakers said the denial was mystifying and devastating amid the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, Chrystal has not tested positive for this virus.

“There’s no reason why I should be sitting here on a 12-month continuance for something I didn’t do,” Chrystal Baker said. “And if there was a reasoning, they should have put it on the paper. But it strictly says programming. That’s it.”  

“If you ask me,” Ted Baker said, “she’s sitting there on death row for a DUI.”

When asked about Baker’s denial, Gautz wrote in an email: “[She] Has multiple drunk driving convictions, including multiple accidents. Has performed poorly in the past on community supervision in terms of maintaining sobriety.” 

Gautz said there are often more factors going into the parole decision making process than meet the eye. But the raw numbers for the pandemic year of 2020 show that even when complex decisions came before the parole board in a time of crisis, the pandemic has not shifted how the parole board determines releases.

“What is riskier?”

Jacqueline Williams of AFSC believes the data demonstrate a flawed and narrow risk assessment by the parole board. “What is riskier: to keep more people inside throughout the pandemic, allow the virus to boomerang back and forth from prison to community over and over again, [or] have someone participate in a free world substance use program?” she said.

Matt Wiese is president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan and Marquette County Prosecutor. His organization broadly supports strict adherence to sentencing requirements. Wiese said he would not have a problem seeing otherwise parole-ready people released on the condition that they take required programming in the community.

“If that’s truly the only thing holding them back,” Wiese said, “I wouldn’t have a problem with them as part of their parole doing the rest of the program [in the community].”

Baker does not have the option to complete a course in her community because MDOC has put her in a bureaucratic bind. The parole board determined she is a risk to society because she hasn’t gone through a substance abuse class. But she can’t reduce this risk because the MDOC hasn’t run the class she needs in nearly a year. 

Kristopher Martin, who is incarcerated at Macomb Correctional Facility, was also confident going into his parole hearing last September.  He had received an MDOC report stating he was a “high probability for parole.” That “high probability” guideline is based on a scoring system that takes into account various factors — like prior criminal record, age, and conduct within the prison — to calculate someone’s readiness for parole.

When the Parole Board departs from the guideline, it “must be for substantial and compelling reasons,” as outlined in a departmental policy directive.

In Martin’s case, the Parole Board did depart from the guideline and denied him parole. The “substantial and compelling reasons for guideline departure” consisted of a single line: “P [sic] must complete department recommended programming before considering risk reduction.” 

As in Baker’s case, the board said they could not evaluate Martin’s risk to society without him completing coursework that the MDOC had not made available to him.

It is impossible to know whether Martin’s parole denial is just because he hasn’t taken the class or if the parole board would still consider him a risk even if he had taken the class. Gautz of MDOC points to the fact that Martin’s crime, driving while intoxicated, resulted in the death of another person. 

Martin’s mother, Jewell Martin, is frustrated by the decision. Her son has been incarcerated for more than five years, during which the MDOC did not make the course available to him. The MDOC typically waits until the final 18 months of a person’s minimum sentence to enroll them in their required programming. 

“You can’t go [to class] when you want to go, you have to wait for them to sign you up and get you in the class,” she said. “They didn’t make sure he got his class done.” 

The denial has put Martin in a serious medical bind. He is living with a brain and spinal condition, a Chiari Malformation, that causes nerve damage and requires surgery. Martin is choosing to delay the surgery because he does not want to lose his spot in substance abuse classes and risk another 12-month parole denial.

“If I have the surgery, miss my class even one day, I get kicked out and have to wait months to get back in,” Martin said via JPay, a prison email service. 

Back in Marquette Branch Prison, Justin Eskildsen’s release may be imminent. He completed his recommended coursework in mid-February, but he still doesn’t know when the parole board will actually grant his release. For Angela Spangler and their kids in Grand Haven, that continues to mean “less food on the table.”

“Meanwhile his family suffers and falls farther behind without his help,” she wrote to Outlier in a text. “The kids need their dad.”

**An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of one of our sources. It is Spangler, not Spangeler. The story has been updated and we regret the error.

How can delivering info to meet basic needs drive an entire newsroom?


By Malak Silmi

January 21, 2020

Since April more people have used Outlier’s text message information system to help them find food assistance more often than anything else. About 35% of our users have needed help with food since the pandemic started. Ebony Hamilton, a single mother living with her children in River Rouge, was in the same position in mid-November when she used Outlier’s info service.

Hamilton was homebound without access to a car, just like around one-third of Detroiters. Hamilton let us know the resources our system was connecting her to were saying they now had long waitlists, or that she couldn’t qualify for help. We reached out to our partners at the Detroit Free Press and asked if they could look into and then cover this gap in the safety net.  

Meanwhile, Gleaners Community Food Bank made a food box available I could drop off at Hamilton’s home while we looked for a more reliable source of food. (Disclaimer: our editor serves on Gleaners’ Board of Directors. We encourage our partners to cover issues with food assistance and don’t cover this issue ourselves because of this potential conflict of interest). 

Hamilton told me she was also struggling to get her landlord to make repairs on her home. She mentioned the landlord was not answering her calls. When I walked up to her front porch to deliver the food packages the smell of her flooded basement was overwhelming. There was no heat in the house.

“We’ve been having these problems since June, and I haven’t ever talked to the landlord or been able to contact them to get it all repaired,” Hamilton said at the time.

We found Hamilton’s house had been sold from one out-of-state LLC to a local investment property LLC called AVE FENIX 62 LLC in June. Hamilton had no idea and we still didn’t have an actual person identified as the landlord.

For food assistance, I connected Hamilton with the River Rouge School District, where six of her children are enrolled. The district agreed to drop off food every Wednesday. 
“I told them about our living situation and how I couldn’t get the kids logged into the school with everything going on,” she said.

Deputy Superintendent Alisa Berry-Brown said the district has wellness care coordinators who can visit families to better understand what aid they need and how the district could help. She says her district is well connected with statewide resources.

Within a few days,the school district managed to get an inspector sent to Hamilton’s home. They were able to accomplish what neither Hamilton nor we had been able to do, get the local housing commission to return our phone calls.

A supervisor with the Inkster Housing Commission later said the Commission told the landlord they would hold back their Section 8 rent subsidy if repairs were not made. The last of those repairs were finished earlier this month. 

Now that Hamilton’s situation has stabilized we’re reporting out if other tenants living in properties managed by the same company as Hamilton’s property are facing similar problems. We’re also interested in reporting, with our collaborators at Chalkbeat, how Detroit’s schools are approaching the housing challenges coming up for students during the pandemic. 

This is why we call our text message system the engine of Outlier’s reporting. Our text message exchanges lead to questions and answers we couldn’t have anticipated.

The Detroit issues we’re watching in 2021


We are working towards a better 2021 by exposing and filling the accountability gaps the pandemic has created or worsened in Detroit. The things at the top of our list of concerns are below. Help us keep an eye out. Reach out if you need us or want to talk through a tip or a story. We are looking forward to a brighter and easier 2021 with you! 

Real estate speculation: Even as record unemployment means more people are having a hard time paying rent the real estate market in Detroit hasn’t slowed down. The last economic crisis and the tax foreclosures that followed ushered in a boom of speculative buying that has been impossible to untangle from blight and vacancy today in Detroit’s residential neighborhoods.

Next year we expect the lawsuits against some of Detroit’s most notorious real estate speculators to move through the courts after being slowed down by pandemic-related case backlogs. In February, the city filed cases against father and son duo Stephen and Steve Hagerman and Micheal Kelly. Another case against Salameh Jaser was filed but then dropped

google street view of a Detroit property several years apart
Alex Alsup’s street view project, which you can find @ZugIslander is a necessary visual gut-punch of just how little time it takes a neighborhood to change or even disappear.

The city is suing over what it calls an “invest and neglect business model.” Their argument is that any enforcement tools like blight tickets, fines, and tax foreclosure the city relies on to keep properties in productive use are ineffective because the business model is the public nuisance causing widespread blight.

COVID-19 reinfections: The Michigan Department of Corrections has at least 115 people in their prisons that have tested positive for COVID-19 again more than 90 days after testing positive the first time. Angie Jackson from the Detroit Free Press broke this story that frankly deserves more attention and concern. 

Jackson spoke to people who are not COVID-19 “long-haulers” but tested negative in between their two positive tests, and we have had sources reach out to us saying the same thing. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has not yet responded to our questions about what they are doing to confirm whether or not these are in fact, reinfections, saying only, “We are reviewing case and test data to determine information about individuals who have had a positive test 90 days or more from their initial positive test.”

Prison health is public health, y’all. It’s important the state track down these answers and allow us to inform the public, especially as there are few precautions being taken to prevent outbreaks in MDOC facilities.

City Government: For the past few years, a few news organizations along with Citizen Detroit have been collaborating on a program out of Chicago called Documenters. Detroiters can get paid to attend city government meetings, take careful notes, and upload edited versions of those notes where everyone can access them. More civic participation and more citizen oversight of essential services and taxpayer money is a win-win! Here’s a New Year’s resolution you can cross off your list early, sign up to get info about upcoming trainings and events right now.

Keep the lights on: We’re still making our way through the most recent filing in the Michigan Public Service Commissions’ case concerning utility shut-offs during the pandemic. MPSC is now requiring Michigan’s private (but publicly regulated) utility companies to hand over more data about how many customers are getting shut off for nonpayment and how many are getting help through payment plans or state assistance. 

The increased transparency is great. Not so great is that MPSC reports people needing help to pay their bills are still having trouble finding it. Last month 1,726 Consumers Energy customers were disconnected because of nonpayment and 2,718 DTE customers were disconnected. Our earlier analysis of 2017 and 2018 shutoff data showed that more than half the customer’s shut off for nonpayment went more than a year before being reconnected.

A Message from Outlier Media


Outlier Media is preparing for some major changes as we look to the future. We are broadening our focus a bit, but we remain dedicated to filling local information and accountability gaps.

When Outlier Media started five years ago, we wanted to build a news service for people who are undervalued by most newsrooms – low-income communities and people of color. Too often, legacy news organizations write only about – but not for – these communities and focus instead on an ideal reader that already has the information and resources they need. That focus makes information and accountability gaps worse for communities that can least afford them.

We wanted to take the basics of good reporting – rigor, clarity, accessibility, and public service – and discard almost everything else about how the news is delivered and to whom. We believed it was possible to deliver good information to the people who need it most – and hold institutions accountable to those communities.

We have been successful in creating Outlier Media as you know it today: A source of news in Detroit tackling critical issues: tax foreclosure, blight, eviction, utilities, and now even COVID-19 and voting. We get the information directly to those who need it with our SMS-based distribution. But in our work, we haven’t been able to tackle the second part of our mission: the accountability gap.  

That’s the gap we want to focus on next. 

Thanks to a generous grant from the Democracy Fund, we will spend the next few months reporting about how newsrooms can truly hold those in power to account for their actions. Our team wants to better understand what makes accountability reporting successful — and what causes it to fall short. We want to make these practices replicable even by smaller newsrooms driven to do this important work. We think this is a reporting project we simply have to undertake so the work that comes after can have a more likely impact. 

That doesn’t mean that Outlier Media is changing the fundamentals. We are keeping our SMS-based information services in Detroit active, and we are developing a new platform that will allow local newsrooms to connect with that pipeline. We also plan to finally get around to building our own publishing platform. 

This is not an ideal time to shift from our existing work, but we feel compelled. Our democracy and our communities depend on journalists being able to do high-impact reporting that holds institutions – including media – accountable to their communities. But, we are also seeing a tremendous amount of harm over the past few years that needs to be addressed if we want a future where that harm is lessened. And so, we here at Outlier Media think it’s our job to try to meet this moment.

As we change our focus, our team is also changing. Our beloved data reporter, Katlyn Alo, is joining the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle as a newsroom developer. There, she will continue to work on ambitious reporting projects and grow her skill set. But she isn’t leaving us entirely: Katlyn will be joining our Board of Advisors.

Additionally, we decided not to finalize a merger with the MuckRock Foundation that was announced earlier this year. We are moving forward as an independent organization. MuckRock has moved to a fiscal sponsor support role for Outlier and they remain an important collaborator.

We want to work with a community of practice with aligned values. If you are interested in collaboration, advising us or creating meaningful partnerships we want to hear from you. Send us an email and let’s work together towards a future of accountability for communities who have suffered in its absence. 

We expect more change will come. But our dedication to building inclusive, collaborative, public service journalism has not wavered. We look forward to what we can do together. 

Are Michigan Prisons Above the Law?

Only six states have had more COVID cases in their prisons than Michigan. Why isn’t there more accountability?

By Joey Horan for Outlier Media

Ursula Bolton and her son, Jewaun McClaine, have been advocating for better treatment inside of Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, Michigan’s only female prison, since before the pandemic. But they say things have gotten worse since the August publication of Outlier’s investigation on the Michigan Department of Corrections’ COVID-19 response, in which Bolton and McClaine were key sources.

Bolton, who is incarcerated at Women’s Huron Valley (WHV), is still feeling the physical effects of COVID-19. She caught the virus in the prison in April and ended up on a ventilator for three weeks at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Ypsilanti.

Now, it’s the social isolation and bureaucratic hurdles that are making life increasingly difficult for Bolton. Like all of the 35,000 people in the Michigan Department of Corrections prisons, she has not received a visit from the outside world since March 13.

In this heavily surveilled and controlled environment, Bolton works hard to hold MDOC accountable for their treatment of incarcerated people. McClaine does the same from the outside. But both say accountability is difficult to come by.

“I’ve been told my expectations are too high,” Bolton said. “I just want to be treated like a human being.”

“We’re all here to serve time. What I try to get people to understand is when they’re violating our rights, why shouldn’t they pay the penalty just like we are?”

Outlier published an investigation in late August that looked into MDOC’s response to COVID-19. My reporting found that the agency’s measures to stem the spread of the virus were often ineffective, punitive, and in some cases, created chaos and confusion.

Even now, MDOC only requires widespread testing of facility staff — the only way for the virus to enter prisons — when people inside an MDOC facility have already tested positive. For many inmates I spoke to, the medical isolation they were subjected to felt more like solitary confinement than quarantine. 

After the publication of the story, Bolton wanted to see her story in print and learn what was happening in other facilities. 

I attempted to send the article to Bolton and other sources at WHV through JPay, a prison electronic messaging service, and the mail. The MDOC, which controls communication into its facilities as a safety measure, rejected the article in both cases.  

The JPay was rejected, Bolton said, for being a “Danger to Emotional/Mental Health.”

The printed copy of the story was rejected by the WHV mailroom for being a “THREAT TO SECURITY,” according to the return notice I received postmarked September 11.

Jessica Shumate, who is also incarcerated at Women’s Huron Valley and requested a copy of the story, said the rejections were ironic.

“The treatment that the staff gives to us and the way that they bend policy to their benefit isn’t [damaging to emotional and mental health] but a story about the lack of care and poor treatment are [sic].”

Chris Gautz, an MDOC spokesperson, confirmed that Huron Valley officials felt the contents of the article “could threaten the order of the facility.”

“The safety and security of our facilities, and those who live and work there, is of critical importance and prisoners are prohibited from receiving mail that may pose a threat to that security, order, or discipline of the facility,” he said.

Gautz denies there is anything personal in their censorship. “The MDOC does not retaliate,” he said. 

But Bolton says she believes prison officials are retaliating against her for speaking to Outlier and for her frequent attempts to hold WHV officials accountable. 

“A lot of the attitude around here is that this is prison, nothing’s going to ever change, there’s nothing we can do, but it does matter to me how other women are being treated in here, and I feel like people need to know about it.”

Bolton has a range of complaints related to how she was treated during the COVID-19 outbreak at WHV. 

After coming off of the ventilator at St. Joseph’s, Bolton was transferred back to WHV and put into solitary confinement for medical observation for two weeks, even though she was in a state of delirium according to her and hospital records. 

The process for Bolton to address that treatment is through MDOC’s official grievance process, which Bolton has tried, only to have grievance after grievance rejected. The latest set of grievances related to her COVID-19 treatment were all rejected because they were filed too late after the problems they described.

“These happened when I was delirious or in the hospital. So there was no way that I could fill this stuff out,” she said. “The whole process is set up for us to fail.” 

As a result of filing three rejected grievances in a 30-day window, Bolton cannot file any grievances for three months without the sign off of a prison official.

For every step Bolton takes on the inside, her son, McClaine follows up on the outside. Still, he feels they have exhausted all the resources available to them.

Bolton and McClaine have filed complaints and sent letters to numerous outside agencies about her treatment, including to the Michigan Legislative Council Ombudsman, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, the Board of Medical Ethics, and the governor’s office.

From the big issues to the small, McClaine encounters roadblocks. 

For months, he’s been trying to get his mother’s partial denture replaced, which was lost during her transfer to the hospital.

“I’ve contacted the prison, the MDOC, I think the governor’s office three times,” he said. “And she still hasn’t even received the form she needs to get that done. And, you know, that was lost in April.” 

McClaine has spoken to several lawyers about suing the state over his mother’s medical treatment. 

So far, the lawyers he has spoken to are hesitant to sue the state or the legal costs are too high, McClaine said.

“Right now, the only recourse we have is to really plead with the state for better treatment,” he said.

“Really, all that we can do at this time is to keep trying.”
This article was published originally in our monthly newsletter In the House. You can subscribe here.

Is prison health public health?

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.