By Ricardo Ferrell
Field Editor, Voice of Detroit;
Senior Writer, My Life Matters Too
January 10, 2021
Do Prisoners’ Lives Matter?
That’s a question repeatedly asked by people on the outside trying to look inside Michigan’s Prison system to understand why now 125 of its most vulnerable have die, and more continue dying daily, after contracting COVID-19.
In the spring of 2020, the MDOC saw its first prisoner test positive for the coronavirus. Before long there were hundreds of prisoners testing positive in a single facility.
On April 17, 24 positive cases were identified. And the death of four prisoners who had tested positive for COVID-19 brought the number to 17 prisoners in the MDOC to die from this virus.
On May 18, 830 positive cases were identified. Gus Harrison Correctional – had 612 positives. And the death of two prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19. The prisoners had been housed at Lakeland Correctional Facility and Gus Harrison Correctional Facility. This brought 57 prisoners in the MDOC to die from this virus.
The above dates reflect early on in the crisis. As the summer rolled in, we began to see several more facilities to catch on fire with COVID cases, and sadly more deaths.
By the fall, there were over a thousand cases reported in daily updates. In fact, on Nov. 12, there were 1,006 positive cases, and on Dec. 3, there were 1,362 positive cases to report.
The number of prisoner deaths continued to rise, for an example: On May 18th, they reported 57 prisoners who had died from COVID-19, then on Nov. 12th, it rose to 75 deaths, and by Dec. 29th, there were 116 deaths.
I am both angry and sad about how so many prisoners (over 22,000) have caught this invisible deadly disease and many losing their lives due to improper responses by corrections officials and prison administrators who both are responsible for assuring the safety and safeguard of those under its care against communicable diseases. When I learned of my friend William Garrison dying from COVID in April 2020, just two weeks before he was scheduled to be released, it saddened me to my core. Garrison had served 44 years, only to die at the end of his sentence because of gross negligence on the part of staff.
In mid November, we were hit particularly hard on the level II side of the facility at Gus Harrison. First, there were about 25 who tested positive, then on or about Nov. 23rd, the test results started coming in, and upwards of 200 of us received a ‘Final Results Report’ from Curative Labs in Washington, DC, showing us to be positive for SARS-CoV-2. Imagine the alarm this must have caused.
I sat on the bunk for 5 minutes staring unbelievably at the test results. Asking myself, how in the hell did this happen to me? Then immediately began to worry like crazy because I have an underlying medical condition which puts me at higher risk of dying from this deadly virus. The psychological effect brought on by knowing what type of damage this coronavirus can cause, is maddening to say the least.
GARWOOD TURNER, 76: Died while commutation on Gov. Whitmer’s desk
Within 3 days after he contracted the coronavirus, Garwood Turner, 76, an elderly sick prisoner at the Gus Harrison Facility was pronounced dead from COVID complications, Dec. 17, 2020. He locked just a few doors down across the hall from me before he was moved to another housing unit. Its obvious COVID killed Turner, but had staff properly checked on him during their required 30 minute rounds his condition could have been detected more quicker, and medical attention provided which could’ve help to save his life.
His frailty and poor health should have been of significant concern to both custody staff, as well as health care providers. In short, Garwood Turner wasn’t given adequate attention by those responsible for assuring that his safety and health was protected. Staff simply dropped the ball in Turner’s situation. His family deserves to know of the negligence and incompetence by staff who failed to afford him the common decency of proper care. Sadly, Turner’s commutation was on Gov. Whitmer’s desk.
LEE W. “BABY” LAWRENCE, 83
Less than 12 days after Turner’s death, another elderly prisoner Lee W. Lawrence, 83, who had been in prison since the early 70s died from complications of COVID-19 on Dec. 27, 2020. He was known throughout the prison system as Baby Lawrence. I met him about 40 years ago, we were chained together on the infamous ‘Snow Bird’, en route to Marquette Branch Prison in the Upper Peninsula. We ended up in the same cellblock. I didn’t bump back into him until 1997 at Carson City, then it took 22 years before I would see him again. I would kick it with the ‘Babe’ from time to time about the old days.
He was quite the storyteller. He use to tell me some interesting tales about his time in Cuba, during the Bay of Pigs, back when Fidel Castro came out of the hills to oust Batista and his regime from power, and how he grew up in St. Louis, Missouri as a young man. He would tell me about his daughter Billie Lawrence, she’s a singer. Baby Lawrence was so proud of Billie and I think in his own way, he wished they could’ve visited one last time, to tell her face to face just how much he loved her. Baby, you will be missed by your family, your comrades and those who knew you best.
CURTIS ‘SUICIDE’ WATKINS, 68:
Also, we lost Curtis ‘Suicide’ Watkins, 68, one of the realest brothers these penitentiaries have ever seen. Back in 1975, when I first came to prison at age 17, ‘Cide’ was one of those cats I had heard about and wanted to meet. We had a mutual friend and based on that connection, we always had respect for one another. I remember his daughter Sharon Phillips back when she use to be on television. His family is going to miss him, just as thousands of incarcerated brothers are going to as well.
Its a shame how Garrison served 44 yrs, Turner 46 yrs, Lawrence 48 yrs, and Watkins 48 yrs., then ended up killed by COVID. This should be a shock to the conscience of officials in charge of the MDOC response to this pandemic. It makes you wonder whether if the negligence by staff is intentional. There’s no justifying the lack of concern or the disregard for our lives by staff. Someone needs to be held accountable.
(RIP, RIP, RIP, RIP)
See “Suicide” Watkins’ obituary with video from ceremony, comments at
SIGN OUR PETITION TO GOV. WHITMER NOW!!
In the story below, Quentin Jones, a leader of the My Life Matters Too Newspaper inside Gus Harrison CF along with Ricardo Ferrell, recounts how MDOC officials wrote him up for helping Shawanna Vaughn of NYC organize the Dec. 11 protest. On Dec. 23, he says he was transferred to Lakeland CF, a prison that has had 24 deaths from COVID-19 to date, by far the highest number of any facility in the state.
Voice of Detroit is a pro bono newspaper. VOD’s editors and reporters, most of whom live on fixed incomes or are incarcerated, are not paid for their work. Ongoing costs include quarterly web charges of $380, P.O. box fee of $150/yr. and costs for research including court records, and internet fees, as well as office supplies, gas, etc.
Please if you can
DONATE TO VOD at