The advice to slow and curb the spread of the novel coronavirus is by now familiar: Practice social distancing. Don’t congregate in large groups. And always, always wash your hands.
But what if you live with another person—or two or three—in a 6-by-8 foot cell, and you eat every meal in a cafeteria that seats dozens, and you have no soap?
That’s the situation facing around 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons in America and another 700,000 in local jails. As the COVID-19 pandemic escalates, detention facilities risk becoming “superspreader” sites, rapidly overloading inmates’ medical resources. The United States has the largest prison population and highest known incarceration rate in the world, and incarcerated people are uniquely at risk in this pandemic.
As Christians, we are called to their aid. Jesus listed “proclaim[ing] freedom for the prisoners” among the Spirit’s purposes for his ministry (Luke 4:14-21), and he described care for those in prison as an identifying mark of his followers, connecting those imprisoned to himself (Matthew 25:31-46). Scripture is replete with stories of the wrongfully detained—Joseph, Daniel, Peter, Paul, and Christ, for a night—yet it never makes innocence a condition of our call to care. Rather, as in Hebrews 13:1-3, we are simply exhorted to “remember those in prison as if [we] were together with them in prison,” to treat them as we would hope to be treated were we, but for the grace of God, in their place.
Polling commissioned by Prison Fellowship finds Christians—and especially evangelicals—are more likely than most Americans to want “safe and humane” detention conditions. COVID-19 creates a desperate need to put our faith into action (James 2:14-18).
The single best and most achievable way to do that is to get people out of jail. Most people held in American jails are in pre-trial detention, meaning they’re presumed innocent and haven’t been convicted of their alleged crimes. Thanks to changes in pre-trial procedures, jail populations have exploded in the last three decades, leaving many facilities dangerously overcrowded. This isn’t about public safety: Three in four jail inmates are low-level offenders accused of nonviolent infractions, and many have been cleared for pre-trial release. They remain locked up only because they can’t afford bail.
Some jurisdictions, including Los Angeles County, Ohio’s Cuyahoga County (which includes Cleveland), and Saint Paul, Minnesota, where I live, are evaluating their jail populations to release low-risk inmates to reduce the risks of infection.
There are two ways individual Christians and congregations can help. One is advocacy. Your city or county jail’s policies are significantly controlled by local government: judges, the police chief or sheriff, and the mayor or city council. You can contact these officials (make sure to call, not email) and ask them to release all jail inmates eligible for bail.
If advocacy doesn’t work, the other option is contributing to a bail fund. Bail funds have their roots in the black church’s fight against slavery and Jim Crow, when congregations pooled their money to buy their loved ones’ freedom. Most modern bail funds—like the state-based funds listed in the National Bail Fund Network or local branches of The Bail Project—don’t have a church affiliation. However, you may be able to find a church-connected bail fund where you live.
Look for something like Restoring Justice, a Christian legal aid nonprofit in Houston which partners with area churches as well as Baylor University. Restoring Justice operates a community bail fund, and it is “making emergency, research-based compassion bond motions and arguments” in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
State and federal prisons pose a thornier problem for pandemic aid. Because prison inmates have already been convicted and sentenced, unlike jail inmates, early release is an unlikely solution. And once coronavirus gets into a prison—which is already happening—it will be incredibly difficult to control.
There are distinctive reasons for the risks in prisons: America’s inmate population is aging and also more likely to have chronic illness or history of drug use. Prisoners’ lives are high-stress, low-nutrition, poorly ventilated, and crowded together in close quarters. And even under ordinary circumstances, inmates frequently don’t have access to adequate medical care. In some states, prisoners are expected to make copays of up to $100 on wages as low as 12 cents an hour.
Prison medical care won’t improve as the novel coronavirus multiplies. If our hospitals are forced to make triage decisions like those in Italy, precious resources likely won’t be allotted to prisoners. That makes prevention paramount. Shockingly, some prisoners are not guaranteed access to hygiene products as basic as soap or tampons; they’re expected to purchase these items from the commissary or go without.
Because policies for state and federal penitentiaries are set at less accessible levels of government, advocacy for prison inmates will be much more difficult than with a local jail. The sort of systemic reform of mass incarceration that would be most useful can’t be accomplished overnight. However, a prison ministry with an established relationship with a local detention facility is likely to know the needs and circumstances of inmates in your area, as well as what you and your church can realistically do to help. It may be that prayer is the only recourse, and Prison Fellowship has put together a guide for how we can pray.
This is a frightening time, and fear tells us to react to scarcity and turmoil by caring only for ourselves. As COVID-19 spreads, our fear will tempt us to forget those in prison. But fear has no part in the generous love we, though weak and wayward, seek to emulate as followers of Jesus (1 John 4:17-18)—the love that came to free us when we were sick with sin. The nature of pandemic keeps us from visiting the “least of these brothers and sisters” in prison, but we can still seek to care for them as for Christ (Matt. 25:40).
Bonnie Kristian is a contributing editor at The Week, a fellow at Defense Priorities, and the author of A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today (Hachette, 2018).