Jonah and Me

(I presented this at the All-Faith Protestant Tuesday night bible study at Central Michigan Correctional Facility on March 1, 2016.  The inmate leader of the church had previously called for others in the pews to step up and bring the word of God, so I did.)


The book of Jonah is found in the Old Testament near the back in a section referred to as the “Minor Prophets.”  These books are called minor, not because they are unimportant, but rather because the ministry of the prophet was often of short duration and their impact on the nation of Israel was less than the major prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah or Ezekiel.  Often little is known of the lives of the minor prophets, but their messages from God to the people of Israel and the surrounding countries warning of God’s coming judgment were both timely and true.

The book of Jonah is a little different.  Jonah was a prophet to the northern kingdom around the time of Jeroboam II, who reigned 41 years from 793-753 B.C.  Jonah is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25 regarding a prophecy he spoke about the king recapturing territory, to restore the boundaries of the kingdom.  But the book of Jonah does not contain this prophecy.  In fact, it contains only one prophecy that is eight words long in the English translation, regarding the capital city of the country of Assyria.

The book of Jonah instead focuses on the prophet himself, and his response to God when he received his commission.  Unlike most of the prophecies that God gave to the prophets to speak to foreign nations, God wanted Jonah to go and deliver it in person, rather than send a letter.  Jonah who was already serving as a prophet, was now being called as a missionary.  But Jonah, a man who had a relationship with God, who heard His voice and saw God work was now being asked to step outside his comfort zone. I believe that the book of Jonah is real, that all the miraculous events recorded in it really happened, even it they can’t readily be explained.  And that many Christians today can relate to Jonah because they see themselves in this man of God who lived nearly 3000 years ago.  What I would like to do is read to you the book, only 48 verses long, and along the way share with you my observations and insights about the Christian life from it.  The book of Jonah isn’t about an ideal or perfect man that is setting up some impossible standard, instead it is about how God can use a man to do great things in spite of his imperfections, rebellion, and selfish desires.  I’ll be reading from the NIV, beginning in chapter 1 verses 1 through 3:

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because it’s wickedness has come up before me.’

But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish.  He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port.”

Nineveh was one of the ancient capitals first mentioned in Genesis 10:11.  Later it became the capital of the Assyrian empire.  Modern archaeology has confirmed how cruel and brutal the Assyrians were.  Documents and paintings discovered in the ruins of Nineveh detail how one king would torture his victims by tearing off their lips and hands, and how another flayed captives alive and made great piles of their skulls.  They were a war-like people set on conquest during the time of Jonah.  They had warred against Israel during the reign of King Hoshea, capturing the country and deporting some of the people to Assyria and both Jehu and Jeroboam II paid tribute as vassal states.

So, Jonah was familiar with the Assyrians and when God called him to go to Nineveh, he did what many of us would have done.  He went running in the other direction as fast as he could.  Nineveh was about 500 miles northeast of Israel.  But Jonah went to Joppa, the nearest seaport on the Mediterranean Sea with the intention of sailing to Tarshish, which was a trading outpost in Spain, about 2000 miles away.

How many when faced with what we believe to be a dangerous or unpleasant task have tried to get out of it?  Jonah didn’t bother to argue with God like Moses did saying send someone else, or that he didn’t have the necessary language or skill set.  Instead he tried to run from God.  How many of us have tried to run from God?  I know I have.  There was a time in my life when I was afraid God was calling me to the mission field, so I ran the other way.  I choose a secular profession, got married, and stayed busy.  However, because of my disobedience to God, the spiritual power and fervor for the Lord diminished in my life.  Picking up in verses 3 through 6:

“After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to breakup.  All the sailors were afraid, and each cried out to his own god.  And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.

But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep.  The captain went to him and said, ‘How can you sleep?  Get up and call on your god!  Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.’”

Jonah thought he was through with God.  In fleeing from God, he thought he could avoid his call as a missionary.  But you can’t run from God.  Psalms 139:7-10 says, “Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.  If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”  Jonah should have known this.  I believed he panicked, his fight or flight reflex kicked in and he chose to flee.  But it is a long walk to Joppa, and he would have had more than enough time to think it through.  So, it became a deliberate act of disobedience to continue and buy his ticket, get on the boat and sail away.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  Don’t we do the same thing?  Sometimes we run, sometimes we get angry and dig in our heals on some subject that in the grand scheme of things is relatively minor, but we chose to make a big deal out of it, like it is the end of the world.  Sometimes we slow down or cool off, think better of it, and do what God asks, and other times we keep on going, stubbornly refusing to obey.

But the story doesn’t end there, God wasn’t through with Jonah.  God loves his children too much to leave them the way they are, in their disobedience and sin.  Proverbs 3:11-12 says, “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.”  God permits adversity to come into our lives to get our attention and call us back into obedience, to serve as a wake-up call.  How many of you have experienced difficulties in life because of disobedience?  Since we’re all here, we all have.  How many of you have taken this experience as a wake-up call?  I hope you all have.  Moving on to verse 7 through 10:

“Then the sailors said to each other, ‘Come let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.’  They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.

So, they asked him, ‘Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us?  What do you do?  Where do you come from?  What is your country?  From what people are you?’

He answered, ‘I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.’

This terrified them and they asked, ‘What have you done?’  (They knew he was running away from the Lord because he had already told them so.)”

Now this would have been an experienced captain and crew to be undertaking a long sea voyage and would have no doubt been familiar with the weather in the Mediterranean Sea.  But this was a supernatural storm that God sent for Jonah’s benefit.  The sailors did the routine storm survival activities; dropped the sail, let out the anchors, and lightened the load, but it obviously wasn’t enough.  They were truly afraid for their lives.

It’s true what they say, ‘there are no atheists in fox holes.’  When faced with serious life and death situations men will call on their gods.  They call on the gods they know, in the ways they know how.  Sailors are not known to be a deeply religious bunch and the same was true 3000 years ago.  Each man called on any god he knew from his childhood, in the hope that one of them would listen and save them.  The method of determining the will of the gods was to cast lots, today we would roll the dice or draw straws.

How often do people seek to find someone else to blame for the problems they face?  But a Christian needs to take responsibility.  Jonah didn’t deny who he was.  When confronted he didn’t do like Peter and deny Christ.  In our lives, even when we have disobeyed God’s direction for our lives, do we acknowledge our relationship with God and the reason for the adversity we face?  Picking up in verses 11 through 16:

“The sea was getting rougher and rougher.  So, they asked him, ‘What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?’

‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea,’ he replied, ‘and it will become calm.  I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.’

Instead, the men did their best to row back to land.  But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before.  Then they cried to the Lord, ‘O Lord, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life.  Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O Lord, have done as you pleased.’  Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.  At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to Him.”

Rather than jump overboard and commit suicide Jonah had the sailors throw him overboard.  Jonah knew the storm would calm and thereby save everyone else by his sacrifice.  Christians will often sacrifice themselves to save others and this selfless act can bring glory to God.  And verse 17 says:

“But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.”

G.K. Chesterton said, “the incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.”  While Jonah may have thought it was the end, it was only the beginning of a second chance.  The timing was perfect, God placed the great fish in the right place at the right time to rescue Jonah.  It may be baseless speculation on my part, but I believe that if Jonah had not taken responsibility and acknowledged his disobedience, the story would have ended right here with Jonah drowning.  Many people who have once served God have died unrepentant and unreconciled to Him because they didn’t accept the Lord’s discipline.  Hebrews 12:11 says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” 

In my own life I have learned that when I accept the Lord’s discipline, even during the storm I experience the peace that surpasses all understanding.  His grace and mercy return and once again I can live life with power.

Note that each chapter in this short book represents a different scene with Jonah experiencing different situations which bring out different emotions, different aspects of his character and different spiritual conditions.  This is the same thing that we as Christians experience in our own journey through life.  Some situations bring out the best in us while others bring out the worst.  We are works in progress, don’t think for a moment that we have reached perfection, but rather we are being perfected by God as He works in us and through us.

From the inside of the fish, Jonah prayed to the Lord God in Chapter 2 verses 1 through 9:

“’In my distress I called to the Lord and He answered me.  From the depths of the grave I called for help and You listened to my cry.  You hurled me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.  I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight, yet I will look again toward your holy temple.  The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head.  To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever.  But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God.  When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you Lord, and my prayer rose up to you, to your holy temple.  Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.  But I, with a song of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you.  What I have vowed I will make good.  Salvation comes from the Lord.’”

The only thing recorded about the time Jonah spent in the belly of the great fish is a prayer.  A prayer of Thanksgiving that sounds an awful lot like the Psalms that David prayed when he was in trouble and fearing for his life.  Jonah acknowledged his situation, but rather than ask God to rescue him from the newest disaster he thanked God for saving him from the sea and renewed his commitment to serve God.

Going through trials is one of the best schools of prayer.  When faced with dire need many Christians call on the Lord with truly profound prayers.  Helplessness not hopelessness leads to complete dependence upon God.  So don’t despair, state the facts of your condition and steadfastly cling to your faith in God and trust in Him by obediently submitting to His call and let God bring about the miracle because He can do more than we ask or even imagine.  And verse 10 says:

“And the Lord commanded the fish and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”

God is large and in charge!  If He can tell a fish where to go, when to be there, and what to do then He can, in his perfect timing rescue you from your trouble and open the door and set you free, when we have fully submitted to Him.  Scripture doesn’t tell us where the great fish dropped Jonah off along the cost.  I have visions of a stunned Jonah standing there soaking wet on the beach probably smelling like dead fish, looking back out to sea searching for any sight of the great fish, then looking up to heaven for a sign.  Can you imagine how really confused the first person that he meets would be when he asks them where he is, and Jonah then tries to explain what has happened to him?  

Scripture also doesn’t say how much time if any passes between chapters 2 and 3.  Continuing on in chapter 3 verses 1 and 2:

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.  ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I gave you.’”

Our God is the God of second chances.  When we stumble and fall, we get back up by the grace of God.  He doesn’t say, “My bad, I gave you more than you can handle.  Let’s try something else.”  No, he calls us back to service because he has faith in us.  He will never give us more than we can bear.  Moving on to verses 3 through 5:

“Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh.  Now Nineveh was a very important city- a visit required three days.  On the first day, Jonah started into the city and he proclaimed, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.’  The Ninevites believed God.  They declared a fast and all of them from the greatest to the least put on sackcloth.”

Nineveh was a large city the walls of the ancient city were 7 3/4 miles around.  The population was approximately 600,000 or more, and the greater metropolitan area was 30-60 miles across.  The people of Assyria were a superstitious people who believed in magic and looked for signs and wonders to predict the future.  Dagon was one of the ancient Assyrian gods who was part man and part fish.  What better divinely sent messenger than a man who had been thrown up out of the mouth of a great fish?  So, when this foreign prophet shows up with a message of disaster, the news spread like wildfire throughout the city.  And the people believed.

Jonah didn’t have to set up a big tent and hold revival meetings every night for a month, with an alter call, singing endless verses of “I Surrender All.”  He simply spoke to the people he encountered the message God gave him and God did the rest.  Going on to verses 6 through 9:

“When the news reached the king of Nineveh he arose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.  Then he issued a proclamation to Nineveh:

By decree of the king and his nobles: ‘Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink.  But let every man and beast be covered in sackcloth.  Let everyone call urgently on God.  Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.  Who knows?  God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish?’”

The Assyrian king was also the chief priest of their religion, so when he called a fast it had the effect of being law.  In the archaeological records of Persia there was recorded a funeral for a general in the army where all the horses were covered in sackcloth.  Sackcloth was the way people showed that they were in mourning.  Even today, in a military funeral for the president of the United States, the horses drawing the carriage with the casket will have a blanket covering their backs, which represents sackcloth.

So, when the king and people put on sackcloth, they were humbling themselves and acknowledging their condition.  Notice that the king commanded the people to urgently call on God.  Jonah told them exactly how long they had before God would destroy them.  I imagine that on the second day of Jonah’s visit he would have said, “only 39 more days!”  The clock was ticking.  And the king and his people repented.  Verse 10 says it all:

“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.”

True repentance results in salvation.  God’s word never returns empty.  Isaiah 55:10-11 says, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth.  It will not return to me empty but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”  All we must do is speak the words of the message God wants us to deliver and He will take care of the rest. 

There was a period of over 100 years between Jonah’s time and that of Nahum who prophesied the destruction of Nineveh in 612 B.C.  Conversion is always an individual decision and never inherited.  While Jonah’s generation turned to the true God, that didn’t mean that their successors could not fall back into idolatry.  Just look at the history of the Israelite kings.

Ending the story here would have a happy ending for all concerned, but there is still one more chapter to consider and the real point of the book.  Chapter 4 verse 1 says:

“But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.”

Even after all he had been through, seen the mighty miracles God performed to save his life, had experienced God’s grace and mercy for himself, Jonah got upset with God.  Why?  Because he lacked compassion and harbored bitterness in his heart.   Remember the Assyrians had attacked Israel, dragged off some of the people as captives and imposed a tribute on the Israelite kings who would have raised the money to pay it by raising taxes, which made life difficult for the common man.  Most people love to see their enemies get what they deserve.  But God spared Nineveh because by heeding the warning, the city qualified for mercy.  Continuing in verses 2 through 4:

“He prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home?  That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.  I know that you are a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love; a God who relents from sending calamity.  Now O, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.’

But the Lord replied, ‘Have you any right to be angry?’”

Have any of you ever prayed an angry prayer to God?  When you compare this prayer to the prayer in chapter 2, you’d think it was a different person.  What happened to the beautiful language?  The humility?  The reverence?  The acceptance of God’s will?  Instead there is self-justification, accusation, and demands that are clearly not within the will of God. 

How could the prophet who had just been a part of one of the greatest revivals in history be so disappointed that he would rather die than live?  How could Jonah fail to be happy?  How many of us today try to justify themselves before God?  We know the truth, but we just don’t get it.  We argue with God, demanding our own way even when we know it is contrary to the will of God.

As with many of us today, Jonah lacked peace, because although he obeyed God, he was not wholly reconciled to the will of God.  True Peace comes only from full submission to and acceptance of the will of God in everything.  Nothing saps spiritual activity more effectively than hidden rebellion against the divine will.

Consider a parallel from the life of Elijah.  After his tremendous victory over the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel in 1 Kings 18, the great prophet ran away from Jezebel, the evil queen.  In 1 Kings 19:4 he prayed to God to end his life.  How can Elijah go from seeing the power of God work in such a miraculous way as to send down fire from heaven to consume a water logged sacrifice, and then being filled with the spirit of God, kill all the priests of Baal, to such despair over a death threat from the king’s wife that he tells God to take his life?  To go from a spiritual high to a spiritual low in a matter of a few minutes.  How does this happen?  Because we are human.

As Christians we are not to let our emotions rule us.  We are to take captive every thought and make it obedient to God.  To walk by faith and not by sight.  To crucify the flesh with its passions and desires.  To put off the old man and put on the new man in true righteousness and holiness.  We don’t have the right to be angry with God, we can’t presume to judge God and his motives.  Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.  ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thought.’”

When God responded to Jonah it’s a lot like when he responded to Job in Job 40 when God asks, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?”  Job’s response in chapter 42:1-6 is the response that we as Christians should make.  “Then Job replied to the Lord, ‘I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.  You ask ‘Who is this that observes my council without knowledge?  Surely, I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.  You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you and you shall answer me.  My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

But what did Jonah do?  Verses 5 through 8:

“Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city.  There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.  Then the Lord provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was happy about the vine.  But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered.  When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint.  He wanted to die and said, ‘It would be better for me to die than to live.’”

Jonah was like many of us.  He was stubborn and prideful and let his anger get the best of him.  He pulled up a front row seat to watch the destruction of Nineveh.  He pitched a tent on the east side of town, so he was facing west.  He would have had morning shade, but full sun during the hottest part of the afternoon.  You ever notice that when you’re angry you don’t make the best decisions?  It’s like he’s throwing a temper tantrum trying to coerce a parent into doing what he wants.  But God doesn’t give in to his demands, instead he provides Jonah with another teachable moment.  He grew a plant to provide shade from the hot afternoon sun and it made Jonah incredibly happy.  But then just as quickly God took the shade away and Jonah gets angry again.  An emotional roller coaster and again tells God he just wants to die.  First, because God didn’t destroy Nineveh, now because he lost his shade, just a downward spiral of emotions.

Compare this to how Job handled all the adversity that came into his life.  In Job 1:21 Job said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.”  If anything, Job’s wife responded to adversity more like Jonah when she said in Job 2:9, “Are you still holding on to your integrity?  Curse God and die!”  And Job’s response was, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?”  So which character are you?  Are you a Job or a Jonah?  Do you handle adversity well or are you an emotional basket case?  I know which one we are called to be, God wants us to be men of integrity like Job.

Concluding chapter 4 verses 9 through 11:

“But God said to Jonah, ‘Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?’

‘I do’ he said.  ‘I am angry enough to die.’

But the Lord said, ‘You have been concerned about the vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow.  It sprang up over night and died overnight.  But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people who can not tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well.  Shall I not be concerned about that great city?’”

How many of you have received an unexpected blessing only to lose it shortly afterwards?  Something that you got that you didn’t have to work for, but it was stolen or taken away?  Did it make you mad to lose it?  I bet it did.  It didn’t cost you anything to get it, so why are you so upset?  We grow attached to things very quickly don’t we?  We value things that cost us nothing.  God’s object lesson to Jonah is about what has more value from the kingdom perspective – the shade plant or the city with 120,000 children in it.  Jonah walked through the city, he interacted with the inhabitants, he saw the repentance that took place.  A repentance that far exceeded anything ever done in Israel, and yet he was unmoved.

In Luke 19:41 as Jesus was approaching Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, it says he wept over it.  He had compassions for the people who were shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” and Jesus knew a week later they would be shouting Crucify Him!  And yet Jesus was willing to die for them.  Jesus knew his Father’s will and acknowledged it by saying “Thy will be done.”  It wasn’t easy.  The scene in the Garden of Gethsemane spoke of his anguish, his earnest prayer, how his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.  Jesus was more than obedient to the Father’s will.  He not only accepted it, he gave everything he had to see it carried out, and in the end said, “It is finished.”

That is what we are called to, nothing less, obedience is only the first step.  Don’t be like Jonah who tried to avoid the call on his life and then only did his job grudgingly.  We need to be men of integrity, accepting what the Lord gives us and completely surrendering to the will of God.  Then you will have peace, then you will have power, then you will have wisdom and knowledge.  Then you will hear “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Heavenly Father,

We thank you for your Word, for the Truth that it contains.  You have called us to be obedient and because of your love, grace, and mercy we want to be obedient.  But as we’ve seen in the book of Jonah, that is not enough.  We not only need to accept your will Father but work to see your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  To accomplish this, help us to surrender our foolish pride, our personal agendas, our right to retribution against our enemies, and instead have compassion, as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ had compassion.

Forgive us Father, for our disobedience, help us to say “Yes Lord” the next time you call us into ministry.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit lead us deeper into relationship with you, to trust you more, to not rely on our own understanding, but to walk by faith.  We acknowledge the discipline you have sent into our lives we accept it and commit ourselves to learn from it and not despise it.

Lord, plant these lessons from the life of Jonah into our hearts and minds to encourage us to speak boldly the message you would have us speak, to get ourselves out of the way and praise you when it returns a harvest of righteousness and salvation.

In Jesus name.  Amen.

“Like Being in Jail”

During the Corona virus pandemic many states, including my home state of Michigan, have issued some form of Stay Home order for the general public and specifically request that people with Covid-19 or think they may have been exposed to it, to self-quarantine for some period of time.  When this first started, the news was full of dire warnings and bleak statistics as the virus spread far and wide throughout the world.  Over time as the news started to become more hopeful sounding with signs of flattening the curve and progress toward a vaccine and effective treatments the natives, as they say, are becoming restless. 

The federal and state governments have been working, sometimes together and sometimes at odds to manage the crisis.  Everything from trying to ensure that there is enough PPE for first responders to sufficient hospital beds and ventilators for the critically ill to emergency economic funds to help out individuals and business are being organized, implemented and communicated to the people to ensure the wellbeing of our nation.  Not everything has gone smoothly.  Mistakes have been made.  With this novel coronavirus much is still to be learned about methods of transmission, who is at greatest risk and how best to protect them.  Information, opinion and fake news has come from many sources to cloud the issues, second guess the experts and mislead the public about every aspect of this situation.  People following the verbal ramblings of the president and other charlatans have tried unproven and dangerous treatments, which have resulted in numerous injuries and deaths.

Every day there is more bad news about the economy, job losses, and the effect that the shutdown is having on businesses and individuals.  The difficulties of finding basic supplies like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies coupled with social distancing requirements have made shopping a chore.  Add to this the boredom that comes from running out of projects to work on and having caught up on sleep and your favorite television programs.  The insanity of trying to work from home while home schooling the kids and worrying about friends and loved ones.  These difficulties combined with the improving weather of spring and the social tendencies of our species have turned the occasional grumble regarding the inconvenience of the whole situation into a growing chorus of displeasure.  Often the focus of this complaining is the very government which was elected to handle these types of situations if/when they occur.

Protests have been organized across the country by those who think that government has overstepped its authority by temporarily closing businesses, banning public/private gatherings, and limiting freedoms that the protesters hold near and dear.  Social media outlets have been asked to police themselves regarding event notices that might be encouraging activities that are illegal during this period of declared state and national emergency.  Protesters waving flags of various origins, toting assault rifles, and flaunting the social distancing advisories march in the streets exercising their rights of assembly, free-speech, and to bear arms.  As the SNL skit about Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s response to the protests in Lansing said, “It’s live free or die, not live free and die.”  What does open carry of assault rifles have to do with Covid-19?  As one pundit said, “You can’t shoot the virus.”  Any display of force is by its very nature coercive and there is no place for it in a democracy.

Protesters carry rifles near the steps of the Michigan State Capitol building in Lansing, Mich., Wednesday, April 15, 2020. Flag-waving, honking protesters drove past the Michigan Capitol on Wednesday to show their displeasure with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s orders to keep people at home and businesses locked during the new coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

As with any crisis there are people trying to take advantage of the situation.  While the number of major crimes decreased during the initial weeks of the pandemic those numbers are increasing again, especially as thieves target closed stores.  Police departments like most first responders have been hit hard by the virus and many officers are either sick or in quarantine.  This puts a strain on the police to maintain patrols in areas of high crime and respond to calls for aid by those experiencing the life-threatening symptoms of Covid-19.  Police chiefs from the across the country are seen nightly on the news pleading for people to stay home, obey traffic laws, and behave themselves, sometimes to no avail.

On television the trend for talk shows is for the personalities to do their shows from home.  The late-night comedians spend their time lampooning the president, life in quarantine, and the idiots who have earned their 60 seconds of infamy.  The daytime shows continue to pander to celebrity, as if those who can most afford not to work can really relate to those who can’t even file for unemployment due to the overwhelming number of people applying.  The poster child for this may be Ellen DeGeneres.  She made a joke on her first show back after 3 weeks off that those of us who have been there found to be in unbelievably bad taste.  She compared coronavirus self-isolation to being in jail.  “It’s mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 days, and everyone here is gay.”  She has a beautiful, spacious mansion in sunny southern California, with her own green space.  Social distancing is not a problem, she hosts her show from her comfy chair and her guests are all virtual. 

The real situation in jails and prisons across America is slowly being revealed by investigative journalists following up on first and secondhand accounts of what life behinds bars is currently like.  Every day I read at least a half a dozen articles from the Marshall Project, the New York Times, Huffington Post, USA Today, Detroit News and Free Press, The Atlantic, and the LA Times just to name a few, that clearly show that neither Ellen nor any other person not currently incarcerated live under conditions even remotely similar to those found in even the best jail.  The picture that these articles paint is very bleak.  Our correctional institutions were not prepared for coronavirus.  Not only that but the system which they are a part of has failed to respond in a timely manner to things like the implementation of CDC guidelines on the control of infectious disease, governmental and court ordered population reduction strategies, and  conducting sufficient testing to determine the true scope of infection. 

Infection rates in some facilities now exceed 50% of the inmate population.  In some regions, the jail or prison is the hot spot responsible for the spread of Covid-19 throughout the community at large, because of the infection rates among correction officers and staff.  Prisons are typically not located in large metropolitan areas with access to hospitals capable of handling more than a few intensive care patients. The result is that inmates are filling up the ICU so that people from the community must go elsewhere.  The notorious prison medical system has exacerbated the situation through callus and unsympathetic care that has resulted in the deaths of prisoners in their cells, which they claim never reported any symptoms to staff.  Inmates report that medical staff do not change gloves between patients; sick inmates are not segregated from the general population immediately; and inmates with mild to moderate symptoms are told to suck it up and sent back to their cells without medications to ease their discomfort.

Attempts by the MDOC to quarantine sick/recovering inmates by setting up quarantine units in several prisons to isolate them from the general population has resulted in the spreading of Covid-19 from one prison to another which had previously been virus free.  The only staff overlap between the quarantine units and the rest of the compound was the medical staff.  There have also been reports that inmates working as cleaning porters have been forced to clean up after infected inmates without any PPE.  The spokes person for the MDOC has repeatedly denied allegations regarding conditions inside of prisons, the same as they have for every other inmate’s complain.  The response as always is that the inmates are lying and that the MDOC has everything under control.  This time he will have a harder time explaining the body count.

Ohio is the only state so far that claims to be testing all its prisoners at all its facilities.  Michigan to date has completed testing at one facility and is now conducting comprehensive testing at a second facility.  This however does not include the correction officers or staff.  At other facilities only those inmates who meet certain criteria are tested.  Since this virus presents itself with such a wide range of symptoms and levels of severity, including asymptomatic infections; only complete testing of inmates and staff can identify the true number of cases.  Given the scarcity of test kits available, it is not surprising that more testing has not been conducted.  Unfortunately, prisoners comprise one of the most vulnerable populations alongside nursing homes and should be a priority.

Compared to the “real world” prison is a place where reality: including things like common sense, empathy, manners, personal hygiene, health care, personal space, and access to PPE is extremely limited or non-existent.  ICE detainees have gone on hunger strikes for more soap and toilet paper.  The federal Bureau of Prisons failed to follow the Justice Departments mandate to reduce prison populations by sending thousands of eligible prisoners home to serve out the remainder of their sentences under house arrest.  Juvenile detention facilities likewise have been slow to release minors who have been deemed to pose no threat to society.  Advocacy groups have been bailing out people who couldn’t afford bail and have been in jails awaiting trials, which have been postponed because the courts have significantly reduced case loads while conducting hearings remotely.  In some states, even after prisons and jails went into quarantine mode, inmates were sent out on work assignments where they risked either catching the virus or spreading the virus into the community.  For example, until just a few days ago inmates from the Rikers Island jail in New York were used to dig graves in a cemetery for the city’s poor.

COVID-19 quotes set to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Quarantine and self-isolation. Stay Home Stay Safe. Limit contact to others. Prevention the spread of Coronavirus. Stock vector illustration.

Directions to inmates from the MDOC regarding how to protect themselves from the coronavirus have been described as confusing, contradictory, inadequate and/or misleading.  The MDOC instructed MSI, its prison factory service to begin producing cloth face masks for staff and inmates.  It then began to issue 3 masks each to inmates with directions to wear them whenever they leave their cells, but only at facilities which have had a positive case diagnosed.  Even after the pandemic was known to be circulating in prisons, inmates are still being released on parole or probation without being tested to see if they are infected or being instructed to self-isolate for 14 days.  Inmates being paroled can’t find access to critical services that are usually provided by governmental or non-profit agencies to get started in their community placement.

In March when the first signs of community spread of the virus were reported, the MDOC like most other jails and prison systems closed their visiting rooms and banned outside volunteers and program instructors from entering the facility.  Internal programs like GED or mandatory programing continue with fewer inmates allowed to attend each class.  Fewer inmates where allowed to go to chow at one time to promote social distancing.  In the level 1 facility where I was housed, in the chow hall we had 4-man tables which barely had enough room for 4 trays.  Even cutting the seating in half leaves you eating face to face with another person.  In some places where the infection rates are highest the chow halls have now been closed and the food is delivered to the inmates in their cells.

To allow inmates to communicate with their family and friends prison phone companies like Global Tel Link are providing weekly free 5-minute calls to inmates.  Email services like JPay have given inmates free electronic stamps to allow them to write home using the kiosk located in the housing units.  This sounds like a nice gesture from companies who have made millions of dollars from selling overpriced services to inmates for years.  The reality is that phones and kiosks are used by dozens of inmates daily and the limitation on the types of cleaning/disinfectant products allowed means that inmates who uses these devices put themselves at risk.  Sanitizers and cleaning products containing 60% ethanol, or 70% isopropyl alcohol have been shown to be the most effective against the coronavirus however, only dilute bleach is allowed.  The old technique of putting a sock over the phone may not protect you from contracting the coronavirus when you put the handset to your face. 

Approximately 95% of all inmates in the US will be released back into society when they complete their sentence.  Unfortunately, Covid-19 does not discriminate in who it infects.  There have been numerous tragic stories reported in the news of inmates within days, weeks or months of being released who have contracted the virus and died.  One of the saddest was the case of a women in jail who gave birth while on a ventilator and later died without ever getting to know her child.  Another involved a man who had been incarcerated 44 years.  He was convicted of murder at age 16.  He had turned down parole earlier in the year, intending to ‘max out’ his sentence and leave prison a free man.  Having reconsidered that decision after the pandemic started, he was scheduled to be paroled in a matter of weeks when he passed away from the virus.  Technical parole violators who have been sent to jail or returned to prison have gotten sick and died. 

Jails and prisons are like petri dishes which culture microorganisms.  Even in the best of times they are unsanitary places full of unhygienic people.  When I was in jail awaiting my court hearings there was no warm/hot water available in my cell, only cold water from the sink and shower.  The soap provided was so poor that it did not foam or suds making it difficult to wash after using the bathroom or before meals.  Very few people are incarcerated in single-man cells, most are crowded into dormitories with a hundred other people.  Social distancing is just not an option so when one gets sick, many get sick.  Getting a cold or the flu in prison is miserable, getting Covid-19 for many could be a death sentence.  Knowing this, the level of fear among inmates is running extremely high. 

Incarceration is a stressful situation in the best of times, now it is nearly at panic levels.  Around the world and even in the US there have been prison riots over fears about Covid-19 and what it could do inside the walls.  Video from a cell phone that had been smuggled into the Wayne County jail in Detroit showed inmates with their tee-shirts pulled up like masks over their faces pleading for help.  Pictures of the Cook County jail showed a window with a message spelled out in toilet paper calling for help.  In addition to the non-profit organizations that were bailing people out of jail, others have begun to supply soap free of charge to inmates that were not getting it otherwise.  While gestures like this are appreciated, they do not address the underlying issues that are putting so many people at risk.

Prisoners hung signs pleading for help in a window of the Cook County jail on Tuesday.
Credit…Jim Vondruska/Reuters

Since the early 2000s prison populations in many, but not all states, have been slowly but steadily decreasing.  Violent crime rates with a few exceptions have also been decreasing during this time according to FBI statistics.  According to a recent report from the MDOC the prisoner population in 2019 was at 96.9% of capacity.  There was also a reduction of 445 beds due to prison closings that resulted from the decrease in population.  What they are not telling you is that the current prison capacity is double of what they were originally designed for.  I was in two different prisons with level 1 pole barns that had originally been equipped for 80 men.  There were 4 men assigned to each cubical.  Now there are 160 men in the housing unit and 8 men to a cube.  When I was in level 2 and level 4 the cells were two-man rooms.  While level 2 was designed that way, level 4 was not, they were supposed to be one-man cells with their own toilet and sink.  Instead of addressing the overcrowding issue by keeping prisons open with fewer inmates the MDOC decided to maintain few prisons in order to offset cost increases while keeping its $2 Billion budget flat. 

It is not a case of Monday morning quarterbacking to say that this was a fatal mistake.  Many people have been speaking out about this problem for years, yet the MDOC ignored the warning signs such as outbreaks of norovirus that have resulted in prisons being quarantined on a regular basis.  The sad thing is that unlike the Flint water crisis there will be no Attorney General investigation, no one will lose their jobs, and no one will be held responsible for the criminal negligence that has led to the unnecessary loss of life that has resulted from the coronavirus pandemic of 2020.

Having said all of this, I hope I have made my point that self-isolation at home is not like being in jail.