Over the past few months, Michigan prisons have seen an exponential increase in the number of COVID-19 cases. However, inmates under 65 years old are classified under Phase 2 of COVID-19 vaccine distribution along with the rest of the general population, fueling criticism that the state is not prioritizing incarcerated individuals who are vulnerable to infection.

As of Jan. 29, there have been more than 24,000 COVID-19 cases and 132 COVID-19 related deaths among Michigan prisoners. In the entire state, there have been 556,190 cases and 14,491 deaths.

As cases continue to rise, activists and families of those in Michigan prisons have begun to advocate for incarcerated individuals to have priority for receiving the vaccine due to the congregate living conditions they are housed in. In November, families protested outside of the St. Louis Correctional Facility in St. Louis, Mich., after nearly 700 prisoners tested positive for COVID-19. 

When the pandemic began last year, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer “urging prison officials to protect the health of people in their custody, and their staff, and release people who are most vulnerable to the Coronavirus.” 

Whitmer has received criticism for her criminal justice policies as COVID-19 cases have continued to grow in prisons. In August, she signed an executive order to improve testing and transfer protocols within prisons, though organizations like the ACLU continue to call for the release of non-violent offenders. 

Chris Gautz, an MDOC spokesman, said MDOC hopes to vaccinate all prisoners but is limited by the state’s supply. While prison health care staff and facility employees fall under Phase 1 of the vaccine distribution plan, most prisoners are classified under Phase 2, Gautz said. Phase 2 is a mass vaccination campaign for all residents 16 and older and may not begin for a number of months.

“We have very detailed plans we’ve been working on for months to make sure that we’re ready for when we have vaccines available,” Gautz said. “But things are a little bit of a mixed bag because we’re dependent on the county health department to tell us what to do.”

Though many prisoners will have to wait until Phase 2, those over the age of 65 will fall under Phase 1C. According to Gautz, 1,800 Michigan prisoners are age 65 or older. 

In an MDOC survey given to all prisoners in Michigan, around 45% indicated they “definitely want, want, or probably want” the vaccine, Gautz said. The responses to the survey were not binding and prisoners can change their minds at any time.

Gautz said prison staff are prioritized in Phase 1 because they interact with their families and outside communities, while those who are incarcerated do not. 

“While the prisoners live in a congregate setting, our staff go home every day,” Gautz said. “They have kids who go to schools, they go to the grocery stores, churches etc. Getting the staff vaccinated first will be more likely to help the spread in our community.” 

Matt Tjapkes, president of Humanity for Prisoners, an organization that supports incarcerated individuals and their families, said he disagrees with the premise that vaccinating prison employees first will be more effective at limiting the spread of the virus. Tjapkes said prisoners should be at the top of the list and the state should have made it a priority to protect those under MDOC supervision.

“Citizens of Michigan serving time in the MDOC are still citizens of Michigan, and should be treated as such,” Tjapkes said. “Their incarceration is their punishment, and it should never go beyond that. Withholding vaccines because of their incarceration is not only unfair, it’s inhumane.”

The ACLU’s letter also highlighted the racial implications of excluding incarcerated individuals from earlier vaccination phases. The infection rate for COVID-19 in Black Michigan residents is three times higher than the rate for white Michigan residents, and the death rate for Black people is over four times higher than that for white people. In 2015, Black people made up 37% of Michigan’s prison population despite being 15% of the state’s overall population.

Tjapkes said he supports the ACLU’s position and said the state needs to step up and help those who are disproportionately affected by the virus. 

“I have no doubt the prison conditions, including packing eight men or women into four bunk beds in a single room, will continue to contribute to the spread of COVID,” Tjakpes said. 

In response to those advocating for release of non-violent offenders, Gautz said that there are no early releases in Michigan — prisoners are required to serve the entirety of their minimum sentence before the parole board can consider them for parole. 

“The majority of our prisoner population have not yet met their minimum sentence, so we have no control over them,” Gautz said. “We’ve done a lot to release individuals who are safe to go out, but we’ve not changed our standards of parole — prisoners will not be paroled if they are a risk to society.” 

LSA junior Reid Schreck took English 221: Literature and Writing Outside the Classroom, a class that provides feedback to writing rejected from the Prison Creative Art Program’s Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, last semester. In an email to The Daily, Schreck said COVID-19 has had devastating effects on many inmates and that they should be prioritized for vaccination.

With prisons being high risk areas for the spread of COVID-19, I think the prisoners ought to fall under Phase 1 of vaccine distribution along with the prison staff,” Schreck wrote. 

Daily Staff Reporter Ashna Mehra can be reached at ashmehra@umich.edu. 

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