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Jail inmates released to reduce virus risk

News Photo by Crystal Nelson The Alpena County Jail as seen Sunday on Johnson Street.

ALPENA — Inmates are being released from jails around the state as the coronavirus threatens the safety of people who can’t stay away from one another.

The Michigan Supreme Court Thursday asked county sheriffs to use aggressive measures to reduce jail populations as much as possible while still protecting public safety.

At the Alpena County Jail, lower-risk inmates have been released in recent days, bringing the jail’s population below 40 for the first time in a long time, according to Alpena County Sheriff Steven Kieliszewski.

On Thursday, 37 inmates remained behind bars, filling to 54% capacity the 69-bed facility that is usually almost entirely full.

More inmates may be released, Kieliszewski said. He said he’s asked the county’s law enforcement to limit the people they arrest and bring to jail.

Only people detained for drunk driving, domestic violence, and felonies will be put behind bars during the state’s COVID-19-related shutdowns, Kieliezewski said.

People committing other crimes will still be cited and given an order to appear in court, he added.

No Alpena County inmates have shown symptoms of coronavirus-related illness, the sheriff said. One person brought to the jail claimed to have symptoms and was temporarily placed in isolation until the jail was able to confirm he was lying in an attempt to avoid being placed behind bars.

Jail populations statewide have been reduced 25% to 75% below capacities during recent weeks, the Supreme Court said.

With social distancing impossible in the confined space of a jail cell — and with dozens of Michigan Department of Corrections prisoners testing positive as of Sunday, according to the Detroit Free Press — jails epitomize the social-togetherness situation that could lead to an unstoppable outbreak, endangering all within the building’s confines.

Multiple prison employees had also tested positive as of Sunday, as well as a courthouse employee in Detroit, and one sheriff’s commander in Wayne County has died of COVID-19. On Friday, Detroit Police Chief James Craig tested positive.

On Sunday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an order suspending transfers into and out of prisons, including a provision to reimburse county jails required to house people with prison sentences during the health crisis. The order also broadened the authority of sheriffs to release inmates who don’t pose a threat to public safety.

In Alcona County, where the jail population has been kept low in the past year through the issuance of appearance tickets for most offenses, Sheriff Scott Stephenson has worked with the county Prosecutor’s Office over the last couple weeks to lower bonds and limit sentences to time already served for nonviolent and traffic offenses, Stepehson said.

Officials in Montmorency and Presque Isle counties could not be reached for comment on this story.

The Alpena County Prosecutor’s Office has not made changes in reducing bond amounts or otherwise altering sentencing recommendations to reduce jail populations, according to Prosecutor Cynthia Muszynski.

Courts, greatly slowed by the health crisis, have addressed very few cases in recent weeks, handling only the most pressing cases where defendants’ rights or public safety require a court hearing.

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