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One man's fight to bring back visits in the Wayne County Jail

Darrell Ewing speaks with his childhood friend, Thelonious "Shawn" Searcy, in a video visit from the Wayne County Jail, where he has been detained since May 2021.
Courtesy Of Thelonious "Shawn" Searcy
Darrell Ewing speaks with his childhood friend, Thelonious "Shawn" Searcy, in a video visit from the Wayne County Jail, where he has been detained since May 2021.

When Darrell Ewing landed in the Wayne County Jail a year and a half ago, he found a lot of people struggling. Courts were backed up because of the pandemic, and Ewing said people around him lost loved ones or saw relationships fall apart while they waited – sometimes for years – for their trials to begin. On top of that, no one in the jail had been able to see their friends or family since the jail shut down in-person visitation when COVID broke out in March of 2020.

“You have family members who are sick and unable to see them,” Ewing said over a scratchy call from a jail phone. “It's nothing like seeing your people face to face where you get to see each other's feelings and emotions.”

The jail offers video and phone calls for people inside – but Ewing and many others in the jail say those options aren’t the same as an in-person visit, especially since they come with a cost. A fifteen minute in-state phone call costs $4.20, which can add up over time, especially as people spend longer awaiting their trials.

Ewing was among the 393 people who have spent more than a year in the Wayne County Jail, as of Jan. 25. Just after he crossed the one-year mark inside the jail, Ewing filed a lawsuit against the jail administration, claiming the denial of in-person visits and outdoor recreation are unconstitutional.

Ewing wrote his complaint on 11 sheets of notebook paper. His neat, slanted handwriting lays out the terms – the 11 original plaintiffs, the basis of the case, and what he wants to happen – for a return to in-person visits in the Wayne County Jail.

Read: Darrell Ewing et al vs. Wayne County Sheriff et al

Six months after he filed the case, no hearing date has been set. Some of the plaintiffs are no longer in jail – having been sent to prison or found not guilty and released from custody. In December, Ewing filed an emergency injunction to seek immediate relief for himself and the more than 1,400 others currently detained in the Wayne County Jail.

Plans for visitation 

That same month, people detained at the jail did finally get one opportunity to see loved ones face-to-face through a temporary visitation period over the holiday season. For Ewing, it was his first – and so far only – in-person visit since he first arrived at the jail in May 2021.

Jail officials have not been made aware of the lawsuit filed by Ewing, according to Wayne County Jail spokesperson Edward Foxworth.

He said the jail is still operating under “pandemic conditions,” and that administrators plan to return to virtual visits “for the foreseeable future.” Foxworth noted that people in custody are offered some form of recreation.

“The thing we were trying to do was make sure that, of course, with the lingering impact of the pandemic, with the flu season, with RSV and those kinds of things that, that we weren't putting people in any additional harm or danger. The last thing that jail wants to be, or Wayne County Sheriff's Office wants to be, is a super spreader,” said Foxworth.

Foxworth added that jail administrators intend to resume in-person visitation once a new jail complex opens. The long-awaited building, which will include adult as well as juvenile facilities, is expected to open in July.

Around the state

Even before the pandemic, jails were moving away from in-person visits.

Michigan Radio reached out to sheriff’s offices in the 10 most populous counties in the state to ask about jail visitation. Most of them had already switched to virtual visits before March 2020. Some set up kiosks in the jail where people could talk to their incarcerated loved ones on a monitor from a separate room. And many counties contract with companies that offer phone and video calls on company-provided devices, requiring detainees and their friends and family to set up accounts and pay rates that often far exceed the telecom costs for people outside of carceral settings.

Only two of the 10 largest counties regularly offered in-person visits to family and friends before the pandemic: Wayne County and Ottawa County.

“We realize that it is an important piece, not only for the communication with their families and friends,” Sheriff Steve Kempker of Ottawa County said of in-person visitation, “but also for the citizen that is lodged in our jail, for … their mental health.”

Research has shown that more connection with family tends to improve mental health and post-release outcomes for people in jail. While the research hasn’t compared the value of in-person visits to virtual ones, the added cost of virtual communication may mean less frequent connection for low-income people.

Most of the people in the Ottawa County Jail are there serving relatively short sentences. According to Kempker, only about five people have spent a year or more awaiting their trials in the Ottawa County Jail. In Wayne County, by contrast, the vast majority – currently more than 75 percent of detainees – are pre-trial defendants.

Even with far fewer long-term detainees, Kempker said mental health issues have become a greater concern to him over the last five years than at any point in the more than 30 years since he started working in the Sheriff’s Office.

Aside from a few months during the worst parts of the pandemic, the Ottawa County Jail kept its visit room open, and added hours to limit the number of people using it at any one time.

A visit of hope

Getting a visit from two childhood friends around the holiday season boosted Darrell Ewing’s spirits, especially since one of them had a long legal battle that ultimately ended in his exoneration.

Thelonious “Shawn” Searcy got out of prison in October after serving 17 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Searcy told Michigan Radio he wanted to visit Ewing to give him some moral support to continue with his own case.

“I feel like in his time of need, I want to be there like people was there for me. Basically, like returning the favor,” Searcy said, “[by] me being there for him and encouraging him to keep pushing to fight another day with his case.”

That encouragement is why Ewing asked Searcy to visit him for his one in-person visit. He picked Searcy over his mother and sisters – a decision he said has been hard on his family.

Ewing is awaiting trial for a second time at the Wayne County Jail. In 2019, the Michigan Court of Appeals granted him a new trial in a case that began more than a decade ago.

Ewing said it boosted his spirit to see his friend and gave him hope for his own case. The two men, who have known each other since childhood, shared a reverent moment: “We locked hands through the window of the glass and prayed together in unity for justice and freedom.”

Michigan Radio intern Emily Blumberg contributed to this report.

Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Radio's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast. Additionally, Beenish spent two years in Islamabad, Pakistan, working with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, covering the country’s first democratic transition of power as well as Pakistan's education system.