“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;” (Isaiah 61:1, NRSV)
The COVID-19 pandemic has further brought to light the need for drastic reforms of our criminal (in)justice system. It is impossible for incarcerated people to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) preventative guidelines, such as practicing social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands.
This is because of cells being over-occupied, constant staff changes and a lack of access to soap, masks and other medical equipment. Recently, many have called for the “compassionate release” of people who are especially vulnerable and incarcerated in order to prevent widespread sickness and death in prisons and jails across the country.
In the current health crisis, elderly individuals and people who are immunocompromised and incarcerated are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and dying.
The MCC U.S. Washington Office has recently signed on to a letter calling for compassionate release in federal facilities. Incarcerated people in the United States are predominantly held in state facilities and some in county facilities. State and especially county officials have led the way when it comes to pandemic decarceration efforts (e.g., “compassionate release”) but more needs to be done.
Local officials need to be contacted, and communities need to be prepared to provide reentry support when people are released. In addition, the MCC U.S. Washington Office has recently signed on to a letter calling for compassionate release in federal facilities.
What is “compassionate release”?
Compassionate release is the freeing of people who are incarcerated under the following circumstances according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM):
- Terminal illness
- Advanced age
- Family emergency
Compassionate release returns people to their communities so they may die, rehabilitate, or age among their family and friends rather than in prisons and or jails. Most states have some form of a compassionate release mechanism in place, but few utilize it.
In the current health crisis, elderly individuals and people who are immunocompromised and incarcerated are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 and dying. Compassionate release also lowers the prison population, which protects staff by decreasing the likelihood of overcrowded cells.
Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, revealed that the U.S. criminal justice system has become a structure of racism that continues to criminalize, incarcerate and enslave people of color, especially African Americans. Alexander showed how slavery was never abolished, but rather evolved into the mass incarceration of communities of color which includes the mass detainment of immigrants.
We also know that a disproportionate number of people who are incarcerated come from low income backgrounds. The nation’s consciousness has risen which has led to open conversation about solutions to reduce mass incarceration. Solutions such as getting rid of mandatory minimums, reforming the bail system and prosecutorial oversight continue to be focuses of disrupting mass incarceration.
COVID-19 and incarceration
There are 20,119 positive cases of COVID-19 in U.S. prisons as of May 12, 2020, and 304 people have died. Tragically, both of those numbers will continue to grow by an exponential rate if compassionate release mechanisms are not enacted. COVID-19 spreads like wildfire once it is found in prisons due to the difficulty of implementing the CDC’s guidelines.
Due to the constant cycle of staff and other workers between the prison or jail and community, high rates of infection among incarcerated people also result in higher rates of infection in the community. Cutting down the infection rate in prisons also cuts down the infection rate in the surrounding communities.
'Compassionate Release' efforts are already happening some places
Many jurisdictions have already taken action to reduce populations of prisons and jails. Below are a few examples of state prison and county jail population reductions that have been confirmed by the Prison Policy Initiative (see their website for a full and updated listing):
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the local jail population has dropped by 17% since the beginning of April, following special court hearings to release hundreds of people held for low-level charges, cash-bail and nonviolent charges.
From March 1 to April 15, the average daily number of people in jail in Denver, Colorado, dropped by about 41% following the release of people over 60 years old, those who are pregnant or have health conditions, people with low bond amounts, and those with less than 60 days remaining on their sentences.
On March 23, the Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC) announced the planned, expedited release of about 700 incarcerated people who have been determined eligible for release by the Iowa Board of Parole. Since March 1, 811 people have been released from prison. On April 20, the Iowa DOC announced that the department is in the process of releasing 482 more people early.
Some jurisdictions are also taking efforts to “close the front door” to prisons and jails by reducing admissions for pre-trial and nonviolent offenses. Others are seeking to reduce the risk of transmission by eliminating face-to-face contact between prisoners and staff, limiting in-person reporting requirements, reducing staff and providing adequate Personal Protective Equipment to all. Some of these efforts result in other challenges for incarcerated people.
Invitation to action
While the MCC U.S. Washington Office advocates for compassionate release from federal facilities, over 90% of the country’s prisoners are held in state facilities. Therefore, speaking truth to power needs to also happen in individual states and local counties.
Out of a Christian understanding of mercy, MCC asks our constituency to join the many voices crying out for compassionate release by contacting your governor, state representatives and local (county) officials (e.g., county administrators, attorneys, sheriff and so forth) to advocate for reduction in prison and jail populations. Advocating for compassionate release is an important step in dismantling mass incarceration. Community support for people released will be essential so they may flourish.
Resources to help you adovocate
MCC U.S. Washington Office: How to be an advocate
MCC U.S. Washington Office: Remember those in prison
It would be a great gift of compassion and health to those who are in your state prisons, county jails and to those who are released. Now is the time to speak Isaiah 61 into the halls of power asking for the liberty of the captives and the release of the prisoners.
Members of the Mass Incarceration Network of MCC in the U.S. include John-Michael Cotignola-Pickens, Krista Dutt, Dina Gonzalez-Pina, Karin Kaufman Wall, Ron Muse, Chichi Oguekwe, and Andrew Wright.