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COVID-19 and Prisons (Part 1)

By Hannah Bowman

Every day brings further horrifying stories about the pandemic’s effect on those incarcerated in jails and prisons. Over 15,000 cases of COVID-19 have been associated with jails and prisons. COVID-19 is endemic in our prisons. Mass testing, finally underway at some institutions, is reflecting infection rates as high as 88 percent, with most of those infected asymptomatic. The federal system and immigration system report and anticipate infection rates of over 70 percent. High rates of infection in prisons endanger not only prisoners, but also staff — who go in and out of the prison every day — and, through them, the wider community.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has already caused hundreds of deaths among prisoners, who are often high risk with pre-existing conditions. The deaths of those in state custody, whom the state has an obligation to protect, is a particular failure. Even short stays in prison can be unexpected death sentences, as in the case of Andrea Circle Bear, a 30-year-old pregnant woman who started a two-year sentence for a drug offense in March, and died of COVID-19 on April 28 after giving birth via C-section while on a ventilator.

Throughout our society, the COVID-19 crisis is revealing inequities and injustices that we prefer not to look at in kinder times. What do the stories of neglect and inhumanity coming from within our nation’s prisons reveal to us about incarceration in modern America — and what moral obligation does the Church have to respond?

“Public safety” doesn’t keep the public safe

Prisons are touted as necessary for public safety. But the failure to release or protect prisoners during this pandemic is causing the spread of the virus from prisons to the surrounding community. The federal prison in Marion, Ohio, where infection rates reached 88 percent, has now been seeding infections in the broader community, via infected staff. A recent ACLU study estimated that a failure to drastically reduce the population in local jails, which bear a particular risk of community transmission as people are more frequently booked in and out, would lead to an additional 100,000 preventable COVID-19 deaths — three-quarters of those in the community, not the jail. As a New York attorney put it, “Mass incarceration is a public health issue.” Why do we insist on safety and the common good when it comes to locking people up, but ignore the clear and present danger to the public caused by our failure to release incarcerated people and reduce our prison populations in this crisis?

Our continued reticence to release people committed of crimes even when reducing the prison population would support the cause of public safety reveals the extent to which retribution, not just a concern for safety, drives our continued reliance on mass incarceration to solve the social problems of crime and harm. Ultimately, we want “criminals” in prison not only to prevent them from doing further harm but because it feels just to punish them by locking them up. But is our desire to seek retribution consistent with discipleship of the one who taught us to forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven (Matthew 18:22) and who forgave his own murderers from the cross (Luke 23:34)? Or should our faith push us to a broader vision of justice?

Prisons make “disposable people”

COVID-19 has made clearer than ever before the extent to which prisoners are seen as “disposable people.” Prisoners and former prisoners, such as incarcerated journalist Juan Moreno Haines and formerly incarcerated José Diaz, report insufficient hygiene supplies such as soap provided by the prisons. This means that only prisoners with money to purchase additional supplies from the “commissary” (the prison store, at which prisoners can buy food and other supplies at highly inflated prices) have the ability to protect themselves. But many prisoners, especially without family able to send them money from outside, are indigent and therefore reliant only upon the supplies provided by the prison itself; the poorest are at particular risk. Hand sanitizer is often contraband in prisons because of its alcohol content. The prison healthcare system — known for medical neglect even in normal circumstances — is not effectively treating COVID-19 patients, as prisoners in New York’s Rikers Island jail report.

The casual disregard the prison system has for the people in its care stands in sharp contrast to the care ethic taught by Jesus, who promised that a sparrow will not fall to the ground without God’s care (Matt. 10:29) and describes God as the shepherd who will go after the one sheep who has gone astray (Matt. 18:12–14). Too often, we Christians, in our reliance on prisons and our unwillingness to look beyond their walls and support incarcerated people in their demands for safety and humane treatment, ask with Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). Yet no human is disposable in God’s sight, and Jesus reminds us that no prisoner is disposable because whatever we have done to the prisoner, we have done to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40).

Prisons make it hard to rehabilitate, stay human

Even where steps are being taken to quarantine affected populations, draconian measures further hamper the possibility of rehabilitation. Chaplaincy visits to the LA jail have been suspended to prevent bringing the virus in, leaving chaplains like myself only able to write letters. Our usual ministry — which includes sharing communion with those we visit, as well as anointing with oil for healing — has been paused. This loss of physical contact is particularly heartbreaking for those behind bars, for whom our anointing may be the only compassionate touch they experience over months or years of incarceration. (“Contact visits” with family are not permitted in the LA jails even under normal circumstances, and physical contact between prisoners is generally prohibited.) Furthermore, the ministry of conversation and compassionate presence we usually offer is no longer available to those in the jail, unless they know how to contact us by mail.

Meanwhile, men I write to in state prisons report facilities on near-total lockdown, requiring prisoners to stay in their cells at almost all times. “Programming,” including educational and religious programs, is cancelled — making it, as Haines writes, more difficult for prisoners to gain the “good time” credits that would lead to earlier release. Visitation with family and loved ones has been ended in all California prisons, further reducing prisoners’ abilities to remain connected to those outside. And when those incarcerated have tried to share information about conditions inside prisons, they face surveillance and fear retaliation such as being put in solitary confinement.

Quarantine has exacerbated a reality of prison life, which is that security measures are always in tension with rehabilitative aims — and when the tension comes to conflict, security will always win. “Lockdowns,” a staple of prison security even in normal times, can always disrupt religious services and other programs. But if prisons are not able to provide programming, chaplaincy, or visitation with loved ones, the inherent hopelessness of their “warehousing” of people becomes evident. Without access to the relationships that encourage repentance and change, where do prisoners find hope? And given that hope is a theological virtue, how can Christians encourage incarceration if it is a form of what Kathryn Getek Soltis calls “institutionalized hopelessness”?

Where do we go from here?

COVID-19 is revealing a failing not only on the part of the state but on the part of the Church. For too long, we have been willing to treat mass incarceration as a necessary evil or, at best, endeavor to “end” it via gradual, minimal steps. Christians have long supported such necessary evils in the form of not only prisons but the death penalty, as following St. Augustine they emphasized killing as justified if it was done by the state in the name of upholding law. Classical Anglican prison ministry, such as that in the form of prayer for Visitation of Prisoners found in the 1789 Book of Common Prayer, emphasized conversion and penitence brought on by the state’s imposed suffering: “that the pains and punishments which these thy servants endure, through their bodily confinement, may tend to setting free their souls from the chains of sin.” Even as the Episcopal Church has more recently condemned capital punishment, our proposed resolutions to combat mass incarceration have prioritized slow, incremental changes to the edges of the system, not a serious renunciation of the death-dealing powers at work in American prisons.

But in the face of the dangers to public health caused by crowded prisons in the current pandemic and the inhumanity and hopelessness inherent to incarceration which has been revealed by this crisis, perhaps it is finally time for the Church to consider a more radical option: abolition.


Hannah Bowman is a graduate student at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles; a literary agent at Liza Dawson Associates; and the founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons (christiansforabolition.org).

For more, listen to our interview with Hannah Bowman here.


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