William Garrison’s bunkmate found him gasping for air in their shared cell on the evening of March 13. The Michigan man was nearly eligible for release after 44 years in prison but died from COVID-19 complications on Monday. Staff performed CPR, but Garrison died shortly after being transported to a hospital, according to a statement provided by Michigan Department of Corrections spokesperson Chris Gautz.
Garrison had two choices: he could be released on parole in January or he could wait until September and be discharged free and clear. He chose to wait in order to avoid the rigors of parole supervision. However, when coronavirus began to spread at Macomb Correctional Facility, where he was held, Garrison appealed for parole in an attempt to avoid the outbreak. A postmortem test confirmed that Garrison had coronavirus. He hadn’t mentioned having symptoms to family or prison staff, said Gautz.
As an infant, Garrison had to have a lung removed after a severe case of tuberculosis, which made him significantly more susceptible to the respiratory disease. “My brother shouldn’t have died in there like that,” Yolanda Peterson, his sister, told the Detroit Free Press. “He was trying to get free,” Peterson added. She believes that prison staff should have done more to prevent her brother from contracting the virus.
According to Peterson, men in the prison told her that her brother’s cellmate had been sick for several days prior to Garrison’s death; however, the Department of Corrections disputed that account. His cellmate reported having a cough, but when he was tested for COVID-19 after Garrison’s death, he tested negative.
After taking part in a 1976 home invasion gone wrong, Garrison was charged with life in prison for shooting and killing a man at 16. His sentence was reduced to 40 to 90 years in January due to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling making those sentenced to life in prison while a juvenile eligible for release. Garrison had served nearly 44 years. “He was a zealous advocate for himself and for other incarcerated persons,” said Becky Hahn, an attorney who helped Garrison reduce his sentence. “He often helped other individuals with their legal matters.” It was this and 7,000 days of “good time” credits that qualified him for the lower sentence.
According to the Michigan Department of Corrections, Garrison was once again considered for parole in late March. Under normal circumstances, prosecutors have 28 days to appeal the board’s decision to grant parole. In light of the coronavirus outbreak, the Department of Corrections asked the prosecutors to waive the 28-day waiting period in order to expedite releases in specific cases like Garrison’s. The waiver request was submitted to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office on April 8, but the MDOC did not hear back before Garrison’s death five days later.
“Each day, we hold our breath as we watch the number of positive COVID-19 individuals climb in the MDOC,” said Jonathan Sacks, director of the State Appellate Defender Office. “We are scared for our clients, the staff, and the community. We are hopeful that there will be a safe reduction of the MDOC population as soon as possible and before more lives are lost.”
Garrison is one of 17 incarcerated people in Michigan to have died from COVID-19. The state’s prison system has become a hotbed for the disease, with infection rates higher than prisons in U.S. cities considered to be the epicenters of the virus. More than 520 people have tested positive out of the 805 total inmates tested as of Friday. The Department of Corrections houses about 38,000 people; experts say that currently confirmed cases are only the tip of the iceberg.