COVID-19 is affecting everybody. But like most catastrophes, the majority of us are inconvenienced, while for the most vulnerable, this virus becomes another life-and-death experience.
There has been a lot of lively debate recently about releasing nonviolent offenders from jails, prisons, and juvenile detention facilities. But what has been missing in the discussion is how it impacts the most vulnerable who might soon be released—and by implication the rest of society, too.
Certainly, a virus like COVID-19 infiltrating into a jail is a cruise ship nightmare on steroids! And the reality is, many who are being held on bail in county jails are there simply because they can’t afford the bail that more wealthy citizens can. In fact, on any given day, 60 percent of the U.S. jail population is composed of people who have not been convicted of anything, but are too poor to post bail or to hire an attorney to work on their behalf.
But let’s think about who this 60 percent of the jail population is. They are largely the homeless, the addicted, those struggling with mental health issues, and the poor.
Data from a national study in five major American cities shows that at the time of arrest, 63 to 83 percent of arrestees had drugs in their system. And according to the Mental Illness Policy Organization, more mentally ill persons are in jails and prisons than in hospitals.
But to simply put these people on the streets—empty streets, nonetheless—may be creating long-term devastation for a short-term fix. Without the much-needed community resources being there to receive them, most will end up back in these jails, but now more likely to be infected with the virus than they might have been by being exposed to staff entering the facilities.
All of this exposes just how broken our criminal justice and social welfare system is. And whenever systems are broken and dysfunctional, it is always the most vulnerable who suffer the most.
Tragically, our jails have become dumping grounds for those whom society has neglected through the closing of countless mental health facilities, not investing in adequate and affordable drug rehabilitation, and preferring to lock up the poor rather than invest in them (though prison is many times more expensive than college education).
Yes, it would be horrible for the coronavirus to be brought in by staff from the outside to the vulnerable incarcerated of whom “social distancing” is a far cry from being possible.
The ministry I serve with works with juvenile offenders. As we have talked with many youth who are to be released soon because of the pandemic, many say they are feeling scared, vulnerable, abandoned, and often despairing of what they will be returning to.
It’s hard enough to be locked up in these days, with no family visits, recovery groups, Bible studies from outside volunteers, school classes, or counseling. As a result, staff are challenged with trying to keep kids focused and occupied 24-7, with very little positive to offer them. And the biggest thing these kids need are positive adults connecting with them.
The actual teachers and counselors and Bible study leaders and recovery facilitators are as critical as the content they bring in.
And yet, believe it or not, many of these kids are most afraid of getting prematurely released into a world that has completely changed since they left it. Re-entry work is hard enough as it is. We labor long and hard to set up jobs, schooling, community-service opportunities, introductions in churches, and other positive peer groups. But none of these are operating now. And so when someone gets out of lock-up and has to fend for him or herself without such resources, the ensuing results are not hard to predict.
Two girls we know who have been part of our Bible study are getting out this week, as there is a big push to release youth across our state. Both are terrified. One will be put into a foster home with four other kids because there is no other place to put her. She knows she needs more support than this will afford her and is rightfully feeling dumped into a situation that bypasses all the work she’s been doing with our re-entry staff to help assure her needs are met and she can successfully transition to healthy adulthood.
Keeping people locked up during a pandemic is not a good thing. But running to quick, short-term solutions may also create much more long-term devastation than so many of our most vulnerable citizens can afford to endure. Most of us will get through this. But not all of us. We are commanded to remember those in prison (Heb. 13:3), and Jesus said that how we treat the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned is how we ultimately treat him (Matt. 25:45).
How can our churches think through providing job training and opportunities for employment for ex-offenders? What about recovery programs during this time, as well as parenting, financial budgeting, and tutoring for many who have missed out on such opportunities because of incarceration?
Let’s pray for those in prison right now, where this is far more than a simple inconvenience.
Dr. Scott Larson is president and co-founder of Straight Ahead Ministries, an international faith-based organization working with juvenile offenders in both detention centers and community-based re-entry.