Michigan’s prison population dropped by a drastic 11.7% between 2019 and 2020, driven by an effort to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Michigan Department of Corrections 2020 Statistical Report. While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer turned down requests to accelerate parole efforts during the pandemic, another decision of hers did lead to the sharp decrease in the population. However, it’s unclear whether the current low population inside Michigan prisons can be maintained once the COVID crisis is over.

First, the good news.

By the end of 2020, there were 33,617 people incarcerated in Michigan prisons, a decrease of 4,436 people or 11.7 percent from the previous year — a phenomenal drop. It represented a continuation of a trend that has seen Michigan’s prison population fall a total of 35.4 percent from a high of 51,515 reached in 2006. To see Michigan’s prison population be as low as it was at the end of 2020, you’d have to look back to 1989.

The reasons for the population drop — like most things in 2020 — were closely tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic took hold, Safe & Just Michigan joined AFSC-Michigan Criminal Justice Program and the ACLU of Michigan to urge the governor to take steps to protect incarcerated people from the virus, such as sending home parole-eligible people. The Whitmer administration declined to do that, saying that Michigan’s strict “truth in sentencing” law got in the way. The MDOC 2020 Statistical Report illustrates the story in numbers: in 2020, there were 8,631 people released on parole — virtually unchanged from the 8,635 people paroled in 2019.

The largest factor that impacted the size of the prison population in 2020 was the sharply curtailed intake of new people into prison. A total of 3,866 people were added to the prison population in 2020 — 54.1 percent fewer than in 2019. This category includes newly sentenced people, people returning to prison after parole violations, people sent to prison after probation violations and one person who had previously escaped and received a new sentence.

Michigan also saw fewer returns to prison in 2020. These include categories such as technical parole violator returns, returns from court either with or without new sentences imposed, and returns from county jail. There were 2,173 people who returned to prison these ways in 2020, 59.8 percent fewer than the 3,635 people in 2019.

In a report to the Michigan Legislature in June 2020, MDOC Legislative Liaison Kyle Kaminski outlined a few reasons for the rapid depopulation of Michigan prisons in 2020. He pointed to an executive order suspending the transfer of persons in jail to prison, the closing of most courts statewide, and fewer people being returned to prison for technical parole violations. He also noted that those changes were temporary, and that intake would likely increase again once policies returned to normal.

However, for too many families, the pandemic changed us in ways that can’t be undone. In 2020, 111 people incarcerated in Michigan prisons died of COVID-19, comprising 45.1 percent of the 246 deaths in custody that year. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of deaths of incarcerated people by any cause grew by 52 percent; if COVID deaths are factored out, the number of deaths still increased by 14.4 percent.

The pandemic presented new challenges for people who run prisons and an urgency to act quickly to protect the people who live inside them. Safe & Just Michigan remains concerned for the safety of both incarcerated people and people who work in prisons during the pandemic and continues to monitor the situation.


~ Barbara Wieland
Senior Communications Specialist