Earlier this year, 60-year-old William Garrison had an important choice to make. Convicted to serve a lifetime in prison when he was just 16 years old, Garrison was eligible for parole in February, or he could serve a seven-month sentence and walk away from prison, finally, a free man.
Garrison chose freedom, but because of the coronavirus, he wouldn’t live to enjoy it.
As Michigan Live reports, Garrison died April 13. A spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections said Garrison had no issues and reported no sicknesses until that day when he started gasping for air and called on a cellmate to help him. He was rushed from Macomb Correctional Facility to a nearby hospital, where he died. A postmortem test revealed Garrison had the coronavirus.
Garrison’s story is a reminder of the profound threat the virus has on America’s prison system, which has been likened to a “tinderbox” and a “hotbed” for the virus. It’s also a testament to how high the stakes are for those locked behind bars, and how life or death can rest on mundane, administrative decisions.
Public health experts working both in and outside of the country’s jails and prisons have warned public officials about the unique dangers of the coronavirus for months. A now-familiar refrain among criminal justice advocates is that it’s “impossible to social distance within a cage”: overcrowding in jails, which are designed to hold many people cycling through for short amounts of time, presents more opportunity for the highly contagious virus to spread among inmates and staffers. The same concerns about overcrowding are true in prisons, where cleaning and hygienic supplies are either limited or banned (as is the case with hand sanitizer).
In Michigan prisons alone, there have been 17 reported deaths due to COVID-19 as of April 17, reports Michigan Live. And a whopping 65 percent of inmates tested for the coronavirus have come back with positive results so far (523 out of 805 total people).
Macomb Correctional Facility, where Garrison died, had 78 confirmed positives as of last week, among the highest number of cases in the state. As another Michigan Live story recently reported, some inmates are hiding their coronavirus symptoms or covering up for others to avoid prison quarantines.
Garrison had a couple of chances to leave early. He was re-sentenced in January after a 2016 Supreme Court decision expanded an earlier ruling, which forbids minors from being eligible for life sentences. The high court ruled that any life convictions handed down before 2012 could be adjusted retroactively. Because Garrison was 16 at the time of his conviction, his sentence was shortened at the top of this year. The following month, Garrison opted to forego parole, choosing instead to serve the rest of his new sentence until September, when he could be discharged without conditions.
Garrison’s name came before prison officials again once the coronavirus hit. In fact, Garrison was granted immediate parole by Macomb Correctional because he fit the criteria for early release: prisoners who are either elderly or have chronic conditions.
But there was one more technicality, reports Michigan Live:
However, in order to release prisoners for parole, Michigan law states prisons must notify prosecutors and any registered victims and wait 28 days in case they want to appeal.
Because Garrison’s crime was committed in Wayne County, Gautz said prison officials notified the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office of Garrison’s parole on April 8. There were no registered victims associated with the case, he said.
Garrison died just five days after prison officials requested his release. Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz told Michigan Live if the prosecutor’s office had responded to the Garrison’s parole request, he “probably would’ve been out by now.”
“It’s just sad that he stayed in and we tried to get him out, but we just didn’t hear back in time to let him get out soon enough,” said Gautz. “It’s incredibly sad.”