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Let the groans of the prisoners come before you;
according to your great power preserve those doomed to die.

-Psalm 79:11 NRSV

The global COVID-19 pandemic brings with it a moral imperative to pay special attention to incarcerated persons. With over 2.3 million people in jails and prisons in the United States and hundreds of thousands in detention centers, these communities, including the staff working in these facilities, are particularly vulnerable to the impact of the COVID-19 virus.  People in prison are in close proximity, living in compromised sanitary conditions, and have limited access to resources to meet CDC recommended hygiene routines. The impact on already vulnerable communities, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, is exacerbated by these living conditions. 

All life is sacred. However, those who are incarcerated and detained are at a higher risk of death, unable to escape the virus incubator in which they are housed, and therefore need greater attention. This problem is at all levels of the criminal penal system, from local jails to state prisons, to federal correctional institutions and detention centers. For the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, this is not only immoral and inhumane, but it is also potentially a deadly scenario. Our nation should not allow this to happen.

The National Council of Churches (NCC) implores local, state, and federal governments to recognize this moral imperative and take emergency measures to protect incarcerated and detained persons during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. As a member of The Justice Roundtable, a national coalition of more than 100 organizations, we strongly urge Congress to act on the comprehensive list of “Recommendations for Protecting Incarcerated Youth and Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic”  as it considers various legislative responses to this global crisis.

We encourage everyone to contact federal, state and local authorities and demand that all be done to reduce the spread of the virus by releasing as many people as possible using the proposed “Decarceral Guidelines” including:

Furthermore, there are thousands of immigrants who are detained in jails and detention centers around the country. To protect their health, we call for those in immigration detention solely for immigration violations to immediately be released. Additionally, arrests for immigration violations should also be suspended immediately.

As people of faith, we have a moral obligation to speak on this issue and its impact on the most vulnerable. At this time when the COVID-19 virus is spreading throughout our nation, it is inhumane and immoral to keep people incarcerated and in close proximity to one another in the ways that mass incarceration does.  

COVID-19 is an opportunity for all of us to respond with compassion and justice within our communities. Jurisdictions such as  Los Angeles County and the State of Ohio are already taking the lead. This crisis lays bare the incredible inequities, limitations and healthcare challenges in the already overcrowded penal system. Moreover, the pervasive systemic issues of racism and classism are only further exacerbated by how those who are incarcerated will be treated during the COVID-19 outbreak. We pray that we may have the courage to lift our voices on behalf of and with those who are far too often ignored. 

We urge our government to take immediate action to protect those who are incarcerated or being held in detention centers and jails. The time to act is now. Right now. We pray our federal government will respond accordingly.

See also:

Policy Statement on Racial Justice

Challenges to the Injustices of the Criminal Justice System

Compilation: NCC Mass Incarceration Resources

BBC: World Prison Populations

An Epicenter of the Pandemic Will Be Jails and Prisons, if Inaction Continues

NPR: Prisons And Jails Worry About Becoming Coronavirus ‘Incubators’

Washington Post Opinion | We must release prisoners to lessen the spread of coronavirus

Dozens of Civil Rights Groups demand coronavirus precautions for people in state prisons, jails, and federal detention in the deep South

COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Response & Resources