“When Job’s three friends heard about all the trouble that had come upon him, they met together and agreed to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was.”Job 2:11-13
As the pandemic unfolded it became apparent that jails and prisons were going to face a horrific situation. Visits and programs were suspended, activities canceled, routines were upended, and lives changed forever. Many individuals were getting sick and dying alone as prison officials were either unwilling or unable to respond to the humanitarian crisis as the conditions worsened and suffering increased exponentially. As I watched the news, scoured the internet, and talked with others involved in prison ministry I struggled to put into words my frustration, sorrow and ultimately grief at what I saw happening in prison. I became like Job’s friends, as all I could do was sit silently in solidarity with my brothers and sisters behind bars.
For ten months I have been unable to write. My prison experience was now so far removed from what the current conditions are like that it was almost as if my experience couldn’t possibly provide useful insight. My words of encouragement while needed now more than ever couldn’t begin to empathize only sympathize with the plight of those incarcerated. My desire to write dried up to some extent and instead I found myself engaging in prayer taking my complaints directly to the throne of the Almighty. While I believe in the power of prayer, I’m not so sure about the effect of complaining. To my understanding God is inscrutable, as His ways are not our ways. My belief is that as Christians we are called to have faith that all things work to the good of those who love Him. Asking “Why” is not the question we as Christians should be focusing on but rather seeking discernment about what our role is in bring healing to a hurting world.
Ecclesiastes chapter 3 famously says in verse 1, “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens.” The writer goes on to list the activities contrasted with one another which do not frequently occur together including: “A time to be silent and a time to speak.” I believe that my ability and desire to write are a spiritual gift from God and that the silence I have experienced wasn’t because I didn’t have anything else left to say about Christ, Crime and Punishment, but rather a time for me to mourn, to monitor, and to meditate. The Lord has seen fit to once again open my mouth and I will faithfully trust that my words will honor Him, raise awareness of the plight of those who are incarcerated, and motivate others to likewise demand more from our leaders to address this humanitarian crisis.
As of March 2, there have been at least 386,765 cases of Covid-19 and 2,459 deaths reported among prisoners in federal and state prisons nationwide according to The Marshall Project in collaboration with the Associated Press. There have been at least 25,277 cases and 138 deaths from the corona virus reported among prisoners in Michigan. In the state of Michigan 2 out of 3 prisoners have tested positive, which is 10.2 times the rate in Michigan overall. Michigan was one of the first states to begin testing in prisons and there have been at least 713,430 total tests conducted for prisoners and staff according to the MDOC website. Reporting and testing requirements vary significantly among the prison systems, however it is still clear that infection and mortality rates are much higher than in the general population.
Jails and prisons like other high density housing situations including nursing homes have been the hardest hit by the pandemic. Highly contagious diseases have always been a problem. Tuberculosis, norovirus, influenza, and the common cold virus rapidly spread when introduced into confined populations. What is different about COVID is that there were initially no effective treatments and the routine cleaning and disinfectants used in prisons did not work. In prison there are always tradeoffs- facility security and safety versus efficacious chemical use. The best disinfectant available for use in prison is bleach in a dilute form. Unfortunately alcohol that is at least of 70% concentration is the best agent for sanitizing and this is strictly forbidden in prison, therefor no hand sanitizer. Like in the general public it took several months for masks to catch on as a way of reducing transmission. Prisons which use inmates to make garments began to make masks for both the staff and inmates to wear.
There have been many calls for the humanitarian release of non-violent offenders and particularly those who have underlying health conditions that put them at greatest risk. Some states and the federal Bureau of Prisons did make some attempts to grant early and companionate release, while others like Michigan could not. Reducing over-crowding was also accomplished by prisons refusing to accept inmate transfers while at the same time paroling those who have been granted parole. Sick wards were established to quarantine those who tested positive or may have been exposed to the virus. Unfortunately these and many other efforts failed to prevent COVID from burning through prison populations like a western wildfire through dry grass.
While a lot has gone wrong with the pandemic response, a few things have changed hopefully for the better. There will be finger pointing, data evaluation and legislation purposed for some years regarding the correctional systems response. There will be second guessing, arm-chair quarterbacking, and persistent questions of responsibility and accountability for how those in positions of authority managed and cared for those in their care. Job’s friends ended their silence and began to speak after Job gave his assessment of the situation. They made many unfounded, unfair, and unhelpful accusations and turned from supporting their friend. Sometimes it is better to remain silent and to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. I’m going to let the future judge how we as a country handled the pandemic and specifically how prisons did. Pray for those who are incarcerated.
After 15 months of reporting on Covid-19 infection rates in prison the Marshall Project and the Associated Press ended their weekly update because the states and federal prison systems have stopped consistently reporting the data. As of July 1 the count of Covid-19 infections stands at 398,627. That total is a significant undercount. In the early months of the pandemic, testing was inconsistent in many prisons, leading to cases going undiagnosed. Reported cases first peaked in April 2020, when states such as Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee began mass testing of prisoners. Though later waves of the pandemic led to far higher numbers of cases, those initiatives suggested that the coronavirus had been circulating among people without symptoms in much greater numbers than previously known. Nationwide there were 2,715 deaths related to coronavirus reported among prisoners through June 2021. In Michigan 2 in 3 prisoners have tested positive, this is 7.0 times the rate in Michigan overall. 1 in 271prisoners has died which is 1.8 times the rate in Michigan overall. By the end of June, more than 54% of prisoners nationwide had received at least one dose of the vaccine. In Michigan 3 in 5 prisoners has been fully vaccinated and 1 in 3 prisoners has been at least partially vaccinated.
While visiting rooms and programming slowly start back up there have been significant changes. For instant the new rules for visitation make it very difficult for families to have meaning times together. Rapid Covid-19 testing and masks used to reduce the chances of transmission haven’t been successful in eliminating outbreaks associated with visits. A difficult to use on-line reservation system to schedule a limited number of visits during the available times which are limited to 2 hours have made arranging visits harder. Plexiglass barriers separate people and vending machines are not available. Video visits have been slow to roll out and are still not available at every prison. I recently spoke with a family that has had a in-person visit with their loved one and they concluded that regular phone calls were better than what they had to go through to be there in person.
Prison ministries and volunteers report that there isn’t a concrete plan in place to restart programs. In some prisons religious services have begun while in other prisons the chow halls are still closed. One concern expressed by the prison ministries is that after being out of the prisons for 15 months they have no idea how many volunteers will be able to enter. Early information indicates that the MDOC will be requiring that all volunteers must be fully vaccinated. This is something that they can’t even mandate for their own staff. It is also unknown if inmates who previously attended will return once programming is available. MDOC rules have prohibited outside volunteers from communicating directly with their program participants to maintain relationships.
As the pandemic eases and life returns to the “new” normal it is unclear whether the MDOC or any other correctional system has learned anything that will change the outcome of future infectious disease outbreaks. The return to secrecy instead of transparency so quickly in the reporting of Covid-19 infections doesn’t bode well for the future.