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Moral Responsibility to Protect People in Prison from COVID-19

A year ago, in my debut column for The First, “How Much Space Do We Need?”, I raised questions about isolation, confinement, and incarceration, and the way political power is deployed to mark off generous amounts of space for the privileged and to limit space for those on the margins. As I write this today, in our world of social distancing and isolation, space has taken on a different urgency. Across our country, those with a safe space to call home are complaining about being isolated and cooped up as they are asked to “shelter in place” – to be on “lockdown” in the comfort and safety of their homes, protected from the highly contagious COVID-19 virus. And yet, so many of our brothers and sisters, indeed the most vulnerable ones are prevented from going home. These are the ones who know a real lockdown; the ones who are isolated and confined in jail and prison cells throughout our country. The COVID-19 outbreak will affect these folks the most severely, and already, the massive shutdowns of so many of our society’s operations has had tragic effects on this population by forcing them to remain in jail due to a backlog in the justice system that processes their cases. As Derwyn Bunton, the chief public defender in New Orleans who has called for halting arrests of minor offenses and releasing people who are awaiting trial, puts it, “The cost to the community of keeping those folks in jail on nonviolent or technical violations is outweighed by the need to prevent the spread of the virus.”

As we contemplate what it means to be distanced and isolated, let us remember those whose constant reality is isolation in the midst of extremely close quarters – those for whom “shelter in place” is meaningless when their “place” is a prison that offers them no shelter, especially from a pandemic.  The Bureau of Prisons has a pandemic flu plan that refers to social isolation, but it provides little detail as to how to achieve that isolation in the context of the rampant overcrowding of US jails and prisons. The only way to protect those in jail and prison in the immediate moment is to release as many of them as possible. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on March 24th that he plans to release people from Rikers Island whose terms are nearing their end and who are serving for low-level offenses. He has also released 75 people who were over 70 years of age and had preexisting conditions.

As soon as the pandemic became a reality on our shores, abolitionists and other prison justice activists immediately started sounding the alarm about the consequences of having so many of our citizens in jails and prisons – sites of close contact and confinement that make them ideal for the rapid spread of the highly contagious COVID19. As the journal Health Affairs notes, “Prisons push people into the path of pandemics.” They are by nature unsafe and unhealthy institutions; with meager access to healthcare at best, and routine negligence and violence as the norm, imprisoned people will likely be among the hardest hit by COVID-19.

Reflecting on the potentially tragic impact of the pandemic on our incarcerated brothers and sisters reminds us that incarceration like a pandemic is a public health issue.  For those informed and inspired by Catholic Social Teaching, the duty to ensure and promote public health is paramount – as is the Catholic call to always care for the most vulnerable among us. So, the sudden introduction of the question of whether or not we are equipped to control the spread of COVID-19 in the carceral sphere reminds us that in the midst of our present public health crisis – a deeper, more serious public health crisis has festered for more than a century. It is a crisis deeply implicated with race, colonialism, white privilege, and the deep link between slavery and punishment. It is a public health crisis because punishment is premised conceptually on the same principle – that the rights of the individual can be overridden in the presumed interests of the common good.

As we confront a public health crisis (COVID-19) embedded in a public health tragedy (the carceral state), let us listen to the powerful recommendations offered by the Prison Policy Initiative. They urge the government to take 5 immediate steps to stem the tide of the virus in our prisons – to protect people who are currently incarcerated and those who work inside jails and prisons.

  • Release medically fragile and older adults.
  • Stop charging medical copays in prison.
  • Lower the number of jail admissions.
  • Reduce unnecessary parole and probation meetings.
  • Eliminate parole and probation revocations.

These steps make sense now, as a short-term response to an unprecedented emergency, but they also make sense for the longer term. Seeing the reality of incarceration through the lens of this pandemic shines a light on the inhumane conditions of our prisons, the unjust models of sentencing, and the fundamental truth that the carceral state makes all of us – its citizens – complicit in evil.

While many of us worry about how much toilet paper to store or how to effectively limit our kids’ screen time or whether we have enough pet food on hand, let us be reminded of this hidden reality. And let us take a bold stance – one that goes beyond mere reflection. It is time for praxis. Let us use this moment of social emergency to shine a bright light on a number of alarming facts. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, presently over 2.3 million of our citizens are incarcerated. Over half a million are in pre-trial detention in local jails. Forty percent of those held in prisons and jails in the US are Black. The percentage of people in jail who are 55 and older more than tripled between 2000 and 2016. For the first time the aging population in state prisons has surpassed those aged 18-24. Over half-a-million are held for long periods in local jails as they await trial because they are unable to make bail. And this number will only grow during this pandemic as our courts come to a screeching halt, while policing (and with it jail admissions) intensifies in order to enforce social isolation and control the spread of the pandemic.

Organizers throughout our country have fought tirelessly for many years to bring about permanent changes to our penal system. Now is the time to learn from their wisdom and take their lead. As one concrete and immediate example, my colleague, Dr. Laura McTighe, a long-time abolitionist and prison health care activist, suggests that we contact our local sheriff’s offices in the US and urge them to release people who are being held in jail because they cannot afford to pay bail. (You can find their contact information at The Bail Project.) These are folks who have not been convicted of any crime, yet they are removed from their families and communities – from the very relationships they need, especially now when we are all being urged – in some cases mandated – to stay at home. Keeping such a large segment of our populations caged in close quarters in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak is inhumane and unjust, and it is bad public health policy. Many around the country are realizing this truth. For example, in Pennsylvania the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), along with the Abolitionist Law Center and Amistad Law Project have urged Governor Wolf to waive hearings and parole all people who have served their minimum sentence, have been misconduct free, and have been deemed to be low risk.

When Pope Francis visited Philadelphia in 2015, he visited the largest facility in the city’s sprawling jail complex and met with people imprisoned there. He told them, “confinement is not the same thing as exclusion.” Francis understood that our society treats people in prison in ways that exclude them from the basic relationships we all need to maintain our humanity. As we face this pandemic that is unlike any we have seen in our lifetimes, may we practice inclusion towards our imprisoned brothers and sisters by releasing them and allowing them the ability to shelter-in-place with their loved ones.



American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Criminal Legal Reform Advocates Urge Governor Wolf to Take Immediate Action to Release People from State Prisons,” March 18, 2020,

The Bail Project, “Take Action,” n.a., n.d., accessed 3/25/20,

Karen Heller, “Inside a Philadelphia prison, the pope offers inmates hope and redemption,” The Washington Post, September 27, 2015,

Weihua Li and Nicole Lewis, “This chart shows why the prison population is so vulnerable to covid-19,” The Marshall Project, 3/19/20,

Kristine Philips, “’Complete chaos’: How the coronavirus pandemic is upending the criminal justice system,” USA Today, March 19, 2020,

Julia Naftulin, “Mayor Bill de Blasio: New York City will release select inmates who are over 70 and have certain pre-existing conditions,” Business Insider, March 24, 2020.