MDOC hits bleak milestone: Over 100 Michigan prisoners have died from COVID-19

Advocates say the spread could be stopped if more people could come home
Posted at 5:12 PM, Dec 18, 2020

(WXYZ) — Last month Dorene Laperriere got the call she had been dreading: Her son, Eric Toncevich, had contracted COVID-19.

"His bones hurt, he’s tired, he can’t eat, he can’t taste anything and he can’t smell and he has a headache," she said. "It seems like all the symptoms are there."

Sentenced last January for possession of under 25 grams of cocaine, Toncevich has been incarcerated for nearly a year. While he became parole-eligible in September, he was denied a release. Now, three months later, he's one of the 689 active COVID-19 cases at Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, Michigan — where six inmates have died since the start of the pandemic. One just this week.

"The idea of him being in there with the COVID really upsets me," Laperriere continued, choking up as she spoke. "I’m sorry."

Close quarters and an already high prison population have made the Michigan Department of Corrections a tinderbox for the virus. Since the start of the pandemic nearly 20,000 individuals — almost half the state's inmates — have tested positive. And as of Thursday, 104 inmates have died because of COVID-19; the sobering "100" milestone was passed this week.

"One of the most staggering data points that I’ve come across so far is that the infection rate of COVID-19 in prisons and jails is more than 4x as high as in the general population and the death rates in prisons and jails is more than twice as high," said Wanda Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-partisan think tank based in Massachusetts.

While Bertram was speaking of national trends, she said Michigan's trajectory is reflective of the prison experience in America where old buildings with poor ventilation and limited social distancing have created a situation ripe for the virus to spread.

"It’s very difficult to socially distance, especially when you have to have a correctional officer escort you, if you’re an incarcerated person, everywhere you go," she said.

While active cases began falling this week — from 9,514 active cases Monday to 6,727 active Thursday — Michigan's numbers are still high. An analysis by the Marshall Project found that MDOC ranks fourth — after the Federal prison system, California and Texas — for COVID-19 infections in prisons. Currently, according to MDOC spokesperson Chris Gautz all of the department's facilities have had at least one positive case within the last 14 days.

"Because we have at least one prisoner or staffer positive at every facility every week we’re testing every prison employee and we’re testing every prisoner," Gautz said, explaining that while at the start of the pandemic the prison system was just testing those who were symptomatic, new policies mandate weekly testing at any facility where there has been a positive case within 14 days.

"We’re doing about 40,000 tests every week," Gautz continued. "And we account for about 5 percent overall of the state’s entire testing."

Still, the virus remains a problem. And it's not just impacting inmates. MDOC estimates that 20 percent of its staff have tested positive since March. Three employees have died. The entire ecosystem is affected.

"If you know someone that lives near a jail or near a prison or if you know someone with a loved one in prison all of those people are put at a greater risk of contracting this virus because of the density of our prisons and our jails right now," said Bertram of the Prison Policy Initiative, which published a new paper this week looking at community spread of the virus. In it, it estimates that the Detroit-Warren-Flint area saw 3,717 additional cases of COVID-19 between May 1 and Aug. 1 that could be linked back to the prison and jail system.

"That just underscores how big of a health issue this is," she continued.

Guatz pointed to MDOC's rigorous testing protocols — calling it one of the most thorough in the nation — to highlight efforts the department is making to address the crisis. Still, he noted, there are things out of the department's control such as test times.

"All the best-laid plans, all the best policies and procedures and isolating and segregating of prisoners by their COVID status, you can have all of those things in place but then we also have to rely on labs to get our results back," he said noting that tests can take three or four days to come back.

This reality is why advocates and attorneys are pushing for a different solution: the release of people.

"Yes, they've ramped up testing, I'm not saying MDOC's not trying, there are just so many people in the system that it makes it very difficult to prevent the spread," said Rubina Mustafa, a senior staff attorney at the Detroit Justice Center. "That's why we're encouraging the release. The release of the elderly, the vulnerable, the release of people who are parole-eligible, get them out."

According to Gautz, MDOC has released over 5,000 inmates who were parole eligible since the start of the pandemic.

"They’re parole release doesn’t say they were released because of COVID. They were all individually interviewed by parole board members and voted on after a thorough look at their record, history, and risk level for committing crimes once they’re released," he said, explaining that the parole board has reviewed the case of everyone who is parole-eligible and has a 73 percent approval rate. "There are others that they could release but for security reasons, because they would still be a threat [they haven't]."

According to Gautz the issue has less to do with the parole-board and more to do with Michigan's sentencing requirements and laws.

"We have seen lawmakers wanting us to do more, wanting us to release more prisoners, wanting us to do XYZ, but when we hear that what we have to explain to them is there are only so many prisoners that we have control over to release," he said, contending that Michigan's high mandatory sentencing guidelines and mandates like "Truth in Sentencing" (which require an individual to serve their entire minimum sentence before being parole-eligible) makes it impossible to release more people.

"We don't have the ability to release them even if we wanted to, whether there is a pandemic or not," he continued Monday, explaining that of the then-99 inmates that had died of COVID, 52 of them had mandatory life-sentences, meaning that they would have never been eligible for release under today's laws.

"Lawmakers or advocates if they’re saying we need to release more people they should be talking to lawmakers to change the laws to enable us to do that," he said.

While attorneys like Mustafa and researchers like Bertram agree there are many moving parts and the legislature should be just as much a part of the conversation, they're not willing to set aside the parole-eligibility question so quickly. Especially when there continue to be cases like Toncevich: a non-violent offender who despite being parole eligible was not approved for release, and subsequently caught COVID.

"The virus is not discriminating on people based on offense types," Bertram said.

Last January, before the pandemic, Toncevich had been sentenced to a minimum of 10 months, a maximum of four years. According to MDOC the 43-year-old saw the Parole Board on May 29 in anticipation of hitting his minimum sentence.

"The Parole Board Action was a Continuance, so he remains incarcerated. His next action date is now July 2021. So, sometime in late spring/early summer 2021 he will see the Parole Board for a new hearing," an MDOC spokesperson wrote in an email.

7 Action News followed up for more clarification as to why Toncevich was not approved for release. We have not heard back.

In the meantime, Laperriere is waiting for updates from her son.

"I miss him," she said. "You know, he’s not a bad person. He’s a good person. It’s just that, yeah it’s been rough."