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Prisoners with the virus have been isolated with punitive solitary confinement measures. Symptomatic staff may still be working, raising the risk for a vulnerable prison population.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Eddie Conway: I’m Eddie Conway coming to you from Baltimore for The Real News Network. This is an update on the virus that’s spreading throughout prisons across the nation. It seems now that Michigan has the fastest growing and highest number of cases. So today, to give us an overview and an update, I’m joined by Amani Sawari. Thanks for joining me, Amani.

Amani Sawari: Thank you for having me here.

Eddie Conway: Okay. Now, it seems that the governor has been pressured to release prisoners, but it seems like that nothing is actually happening. And as of yesterday, it looked really bad in some of the major jails. Also, it looks bad in the police and correctional offices of forces also. Can just bring us up to date is where Michigan is in relationship to the virus and it’s spreading in the prisons?

Amani Sawari: Okay. Bringing you all up to date on the situation. Right now, Michigan has over a hundred cases in the prisons. There’s 175 to be exact. At Parnall Correctional Facility, there are 75 cases. Parnall is where we saw the first couple of cases, and Macomb Correctional Facility, there’s 43 cases there. And so, Michigan has had an alarming speed of growth in the prison system.
Just a week ago we had less than a couple of dozen cases. When this all started, we only had three and they were specifically staff. And MDOC has said that they will be screening their staff. They wouldn’t let staff with fevers, with symptoms come in, but I’ve gotten reports from people on the inside saying that staff had been walking by coughing, staff have been in the units, sneezing, falling asleep, obviously symptomatic.
Some staff have even walked by laughing while coughing and sneezing, knowing that not only are they spreading symptoms, but they’re also spreading anxiety among the prison population. So yes, the amount of people that are infected has grown dramatically in Michigan’s state prison system, and to date, the governor has yet to release any sort of EO in response to what’s going on in prisons. On Sunday, she did release something for jails and detention centers, but nothing for prisons yet.

Eddie Conway: Okay. I thought there was a town hall meeting with the governor just recently, what came out of that in terms of decisions?

Amani Sawari: So there was a town hall with the governor last night at 7:00 PM, and the governor responded to quite a few questions from the public. The question that I was the most excited to hear her respond to was, what she was going to do about the prison system and protecting people in prison from the spread. What the governor said is that she trusts MDOC, the director, Heidi Washington and guards, correctional officers to do what they can do on the inside, which didn’t feel like much of an answer in my opinion.
Right now all MDOC has done to address the situation, is provide prisoners with free access to bleach water and they said soap. Soap is provided in the common restroom areas and that’s always a part of operating procedures. So that’s not necessarily something they’re doing in response to COVID, it’s just something that is done. So they’re not doing much of anything.
When you look at the recommendations that were given as a whole in society, prisoners are not being given those same protections on the inside. Prisoners are also offered screening, but in order to be screened and given a test kit for COVID, you have to be symptomatic. And a lot of people on the inside are afraid to even talk about any symptoms or illnesses because they don’t want to be put in isolation.
When a prisoner is put in isolation, all of their belongings are taken away and they’re not allowed to have access to their tablet to talk to people. They’re very restricted on movement. They’re not allowed to go anywhere. They’re in isolation, they’re in quarantine and then they’re not given any access to their belongings.
So a lot of the things that MDOC is doing is more punitive for people that are suffering, whether they have the virus, whether they’re infected or not. The actions that MDOC is taking is making a more punitive, chaotic and anxious environment for people on the inside. And they’re really failing at all levels to address the situation appropriately.

Eddie Conway: So what’s the status on the pretrial detainees? Is any movement on that level, people that haven’t been tried or sentenced or convicted? There’s quite a few around the [inaudible 00:05:31] Detroit’s, Dale’s and so on. What’s happening with those prisoners?

Amani Sawari: So the executive order that the governor put out on Sunday did make reference to pretrial detainees recommending that they be released and that no action be made of taking more people in. But this is a recommendation that wasn’t given any oversight or authority from anyone to say exactly how much should we do, how many people should be released, what are the conditions under which they should be released? It was a simple recommendation that MDOC has the decision to follow or not.
One of the biggest stickling points is the fact that we have Truth in Sentencing in Michigan still, and it’s 100% of the minimum has to be served in order for people to be eligible for parole. So when it comes to people who are pretrial, in my opinion, they shouldn’t be in the situation anyway. And there have been people that have been released but it definitely isn’t sweeping. And it was also just reserved to people with nonviolent offenses as well.
The language when it comes to violent versus nonviolent is really divisive, and so we’ve been urging the governor and prison officials to look at people who are low risk, whether they are detained because of nonviolent or violent crime. People who are detained because of violent crime who are sentenced to a violent crime especially if it was years ago or if they’re over the age of 50, have a low, low rate of recidivism on average. And so they can potentially be low risk at this point and not pose any potential threat to society.
And so we are trying to change the language. When we talk to the governor, we make recommendations to the governor because she’s been using the same language that MDOC uses, which is divisive and limits the amount of people that we can get out during this time. But Michigan as a whole is very limited in its ability to respond because of the draconian sentencing system that we have that was Truth in Sentencing.

Eddie Conway: Okay, so what is activists on the ground doing and what are they suggesting or advising friends and family members of prisoners inside to do that will help change this situation?

Amani Sawari: So right now there’s an amazing group of activists, a coalition of groups that have come together to make recommendations to the governor that we will be releasing today. Those recommendations include the release of individuals who are past their ERD. A lot of people are past their minimum date, they’re past their earliest release date. And so we need prison officials to look at those populations and make a determination that they should be getting released right now.
Another thing is releasing people who are on technical rule violations when it comes to their parole or probation. Also, suspending Truth in Sentencing. Suspending Truth in Sentencing is required. It’s critical in order for us to eliminate overcrowding in our prisons. A lot of the populations that we’ve been trying to target, like medically fragile populations, vulnerable people, people over the age of 50, pregnant women, we can’t touch those populations because of the Truth in Sentencing laws. And so we need that to be suspended, especially during this critical time.
We also hope that we can restore earned credits to people and allow them to be restored retroactively for people who have had good behavior, and who’ve demonstrated years of good conduct while they’re on the inside. We also want to initiate electronic hearings, hearings by telephone so that the parole board can expedite the parole process and also increase the amount of people who are on the parole board.
And also, we need the governor to be looking at her commutation applications and begin a more robust commutation process so that people with applications that are sitting on her table, that are ready to go right now can be looked at and released as soon as possible. And so those are some of the recommendations that we’ve been making when it comes to releases. But we also have recommendations when it comes to people that will remain.
We believe that once Truth in Sentencing is repealed or suspended, and once we let go of these vulnerable populations that, that will open up resources in order for MDOC to better serve and protect the people who remain. That is supposed to be their primary priority, serving and protect people that are in prison right now. And right now resources are stretched so thin that the only thing they can offer is watered down bleach to people.
And so we really need to open up the amount of spaces that are available in the prison by releasing people and open up the amount of resources that we can allocate to people in prison so that people can be better served and protected with more medical equipment, more preventative equipment, more medication, and just better conditions overall.
And more access to the telephones. There needs to be more phones for people to use in places like Gus Harrison Correctional Facility. The phones are only outside, so there are long lines outside whenever the yard is open. So just simple changes in the operating structures that will allow for people to more freely have access to outside communications, and then also for people on quarantine to have access to their personal belongings.
We know that people that are in the hospital right now on the outside are still using their telephones, they can have their telephones or tablets or whatever wiped down between uses, and we feel like people on the inside should also have that same regular access to outside communication, especially while they’re in isolation or on quarantine when they’re ill.

Eddie Conway: Okay. Do you have any idea of if there’s been any deaths in Michigan, how many people are, statewide, on quarantine? And if you notice or if you can find this out because we will be talking again, what’s the size of the at risk population, those 50 and over and with respiratory illnesses or whatever? Do you have any idea? That’s three questions all in one, but can you address that?

Amani Sawari: So right now there are about 40,000 people incarcerated in the State of Michigan, and out of that 40,000 people, 25% of them are either elderly, will represent an elderly population, at risk population, medically fragile. I’m not sure out of that 25% how many have respiratory issues specifically, but I can definitely look into that. The number of people who are quarantined are 175 and that spread across nine different facilities which include the Detroit Reentry Center. These are people that are supposed to be getting out soon.
The Charles E. Egeler Reception and Guidance Center, which is also a health and wellness center. Kirnross Correctional Facility, Lakeland Correctional Facility, MaComb, Newberry, Parnall Correctional Facility, which has the most amount of cases right now, they have 75 cases. Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, that’s our women’s prison, it has 17 cases and then Woodland Center Correctional Facility.
And then out of all those, the first reported death was reported yesterday. The person was found unresponsive in their cell. They were not on quarantine and they had not yet been tested for COVID. So they were tested after death. And so the results of that test has not been released yet. It is suspected that they may have died from COVID, but out of the number of people who are quarantine, no one has passed away on quarantine yet. And the fact that someone was just found unresponsive in their cell yesterday afternoon, it also highlights the failures of MDOC to properly observe the population.
And we as activists are also looking at the fact that there are a lot of people with medical illnesses, people on dialysis, people that need cancer treatment that are being overlooked because of the department’s failure to respond to COVID adequately and failure to allocate resource adequately amongst the population for people that have different sorts of ailments, illnesses, and vulnerable diseases, people in the vulnerable population that need to be served during this time that don’t have COVID.
And as activists, we do have a Mutual Aid Fund. We just received a grant from the Detroit justice center to operate so that we can provide coronavirus care packages to people on the inside. We will be targeting all nine of these facilities and any other facilities that are touched by COVID. So anyone that wants to contribute to that fund can contribute via Cash App to Freedom Now Fund.

Eddie Conway: Okay. We’re going to continue to follow this and we’ll get back to you later on for update. So thank you Amani for joining me.

Amani Sawari: Yes, thank you for having me. Please look for the recommendations that our groups will be sending out later today, and we look forward to hearing a response from the governor directly about what she’s going to do when it comes to protecting people in prison from the spread. Thank you.

Eddie Conway: Okay, thank you. Thank you for joining me for this episode of Rattling the Bars for The Real News.


Studio: Cameron Granadino
Production: Ericka Blount
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino

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Executive Producer
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther and The Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO. A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.