One of the things I miss most during this pandemic is going to prison. Yes, you read that correctly. To be clear: as a Prison Fellowship Volunteer I miss the two hours each week of meeting with 25 residents in a state prison. The Prison Fellowship Reentry meetings are also missed by the inmates, the prison chaplain, and by the prison warden who requested the program as a way to reduce the rate of return to prison.
The coronavirus pandemic and shutdown made it essential to restrict prison entry to only prison officials. The challenge of protecting a prison population of 1,000 residents from the deadly virus is difficult. Three shifts of officers and staff enter the prison daily to work in conditions that don’t allow for “social distance” in the close living and working quarters.
Corrections officers and prison staff members are placing themselves at risk by working in close quarters much like emergency workers and hospital staff. The difference is that little attention is paid to them. They’re just working with convicted felons who deserve the prison sentences they got! Yes, correct enough. But like all criminal justice officials, those working in jails and prisons deserve safe working conditions.
There’s another reason detention centers, jails, and prisons must be maintained as safe working environments. The U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Estelle v. Gamble [429 U. S. 97 (1976)] that the government must provide medical care to those whom it punishes in incarceration. The ruling had a special impact on me because I was studying Criminal Justice in a graduate school located adjacent to the Texas Prison System where the case originated. The Supreme Court gave us a vivid illustration of how failure to provide medical care to those in government custody is a violation of the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.
Thousands of jail and prison inmates have been released by states and counties, following guidance of public health and corrections officials to attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus through the corrections system. Priority for those released include older nonviolent inmates, those with a compromised immune system, and jail inmates held on an unpaid money bond. The coronavirus has been confirmed in correctional officers and inmates in some prisons and jails. President Trump indicated in a news conference in March that he would consider an executive order to release elderly nonviolent offenders from federal prisons.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected all of us in multiple ways, ranging from complaints about personal inconvenience to grief over the untimely death of family and friends. Faith-based and religious activists have raised awareness of the effects of the pandemic. The Jewish Never Again Action group projected an image of Anne Frank on a wall near Boston’s John F. Kennedy Federal Building. The caption below her face read “Anne Frank died of an infectious disease in a crowded detention center.” ( See “Deadly as Dachau” in Christian Century, April 22, 2020.)
Faith-based advocates representing Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious groups have pushed for release of inmates who pose minimal public safety risk from county jails, state and federal prisons, and ICE detention facilities. Smaller incarcerated populations will enhance the safety of both inmates and officers, allowing for some social distancing and some relief for the few medical personnel in the facilities.
Prison Fellowship volunteers regularly see the importance of religious programming and the pivotal role of Prison Chaplains in maintaining a positive prison environment. Inmates who voluntarily participate in Prison Fellowship and other religious programming take responsibility for their actions that landed them in prison. They are focused on positive change to prepare for their release back into society. Faith-based prison volunteers are drawn to assist Prison Chaplains in helping inmates turn their lives around.
Author and retired minister Donald McKim recently shared his thoughts during this pandemic (“Pondering in the Pandemic“). Three theological emphases of the Reformed tradition are: God is sovereign; God can bring good out of bad; and we can use the means God gives us.
We have all witnessed good, helpful, self-less actions demonstrated by people during this pandemic. Good things do happen during bad times. In his letter to early Christian believers in Rome the Apostle Paul wrote: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
We believe that God is sovereign in history and in our lives, even through pandemics. God’s purposes will be fulfilled, through good times and bad. None of us like being required to “shelter at home” anymore than prison inmates like being incarcerated. But through it all we believe God’s love is present and is expressed through love and caring people around us.
Paul prayed to God for relief from his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). We too pray for relief from this pandemic. It is my belief and hope that we will find some relief just as Paul wrote of God’s promise to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).