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 reveals public support for the recommendations that Safe & Just Michigan have signed on to. In this blog, we will cover three of the major recommendations we have proposed and the Data for Progress that tests support each. The first proposal, to provide adequate hygiene supplies has the highest level of support, of more than 80 percent. The second proposal is for the release of the elderly, and the third for the release of the medically vulnerable both received less support than the provision of hygiene supplies but more than 50 percent support.

As mentioned in the last blog:

…we are working to ensure that decision-makers are aware of the risks that a     pandemic poses 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, the release of the elderly and medically compromised.

Provision of Hygiene Supplies

In our joint letter with the ACLU of Michigan and AFSC, 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 surveyed over 2,500 likely voters if they supported a variety of initiatives to reduce the prison and jail population, as well as 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.  Overall, 82 percent of respondents support this action, and ranged from a high of 88 percent of liberals to a low of 77 percent of moderates supporting the initiative. Further showing the support for this prevention measure is the low level of opposition, which more respondents being unsure than opposing.

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.

Regarding 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.

Second, 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 two graphs above show varying levels of support for the release of the elderly and medically vulnerable. The proposal of the elderly received support from 58 percent of respondents, looking at ideology there is a difference between those who identify as liberal, and those who identify as moderate and conservative. Almost 70 percent of those identified as liberal supported their release, while those who identified as moderate and conservative were in the mid-50s. The second graph displays that there was lower support for the medically vulnerable than the elderly for all groups surveyed.  Overall support was 53 percent, with 65 percent of those identified as liberal indicating they would support the release of this population, and the moderate and conservative groups both at 48 percent support.

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.