By Hannah Bowman
The COVID-19 crisis has hit prisons catastrophically, with infection rates above 70 percent (and nearing 100 percent) in some institutions. Prisoners — in confined spaces of congregate living, with restricted access to healthcare and hygiene products — are enormously at risk from the coronavirus. Outbreaks in prisons spread throughout the wider community, because the guards and staff go home each day.
In the first part of this article, I considered the truths about mass incarceration that are being revealed by COVID-19: that we send people to prison for the sake of retribution as much as public safety, that prisons make us consider some people “disposable,” and that the security requirements of imprisonment are always to some extent opposed to rehabilitation and wholeness for prisoners.
The question we face in this crisis is: how should the Church respond? The urgency and scale of the danger posed by conditions in our prisons require radical action.
The scale of the problem
“Social distancing” is impossible in crowded prisons. For example, California’s prisons are at 134 percent capacity, and a reduction was already mandated by a federal court order when overcrowding was found to violate the Eighth Amendment. Even so, prisoners report bunks that are only 2–3 feet apart in crowded dorms. To allow for social distancing would likely require a reduction of 50 percent in prison populations.
A reduction in America’s prison population of 50 percent would still leave us with an incarceration rate higher than that of any Western European nation. And, as experiences in homeless shelters are showing, even attempts to maintain 6-foot “social distancing” between bunks are not sufficient to prevent the rapid spread of the coronavirus in institutional settings.
A 50 percent reduction in our incarcerated population would require releasing at least some people convicted of “violent offenses,” as they form 54 percent of our incarcerated population. Clemency by governors has so far focused on “easy cases” — nonviolent offenders or those whose release dates are already close or who have already been approved for parole. But the total number of releases from state prisons in in California, for example, has only been 3,500 — just 3% of the over 100,000 people incarcerated in prisons in the state, and far shy of the mass furloughs and releases that would be required for safety, given that more than 40,000 California state prisoners sleep in dorms less than six feet apart. (Further population reductions have occurred in local jails in the state, through releases of those serving short sentences or being held pre-trial and because police are making fewer arrests.) COVID-19 is throwing into sharp relief just how many people are at risk of death in our prisons.
Our lack of will to end mass incarceration
One particular challenge of COVID-19 is that the fast spread of the virus means that action should have been taken immediately, to decarcerate a packed system and protect vulnerable incarcerated people. We clearly lack the social imagination to act in such decisive ways. Governors have not engaged in mass commutations, pardons, or early releases where they are constitutionally empowered to do so, even as they have taken far more sweeping and disruptive emergency measures to slow the transmission of the virus in the wider community. The federal Bureau of Prisons, meanwhile, has overseen a system of releases hampered by bureaucratic confusion, as some prisoners were first told they would be released, then — when their families arrived to pick them up — informed that release guidelines had changed and they were not eligible.
Decarceration is a problem for politicians, where the possibility of even one further crime committed by someone released due to COVID-19 would have political repercussions that have paralyzed them from taking action. Such a concern may be rational, but it is not courageous.
The Church is called to act with moral courage at this time, to resist the inhumanity of our prisons. We have so far failed to recognize the urgency of the ongoing danger to prisons and the “excess deaths” in our nation at large that will be caused by the system of mass incarceration in which we remain complicit. COVID-19 is showing us the necessity of dismantling crowded, inhumane institutions, and is throwing into sharp relief the suffering that was already present in prisons. But we have spent so long telling ourselves that mass incarceration is a problem too big to solve quickly that we have failed to cultivate the imagination of better ways to prevent and respond to harm — so that now, when it is too late, we are unable to act.
I am a prison abolitionist — that is, I have concluded that our prison system cannot be reformed into something humane, compassionate, and rehabilitative, but must be done away with entirely. This crisis reveals that prisons will inevitably prioritize retribution over rehabilitation, and that prisoners will always be treated as disposable people.
Prisons, by design, separate people from community and subject them to harsh treatment. Any system predicated on separation, retribution, and secrecy will lead to inhumanity. The “othering” of prisoners makes us see them as disposable, while the constructed conditions of scarcity within prisons — scarcity necessitated by our desire that they be punitive — encourages cruelty. And because “security” in prisons is maintained by keeping individuals separated and isolated from one another, any attempts at social solidarity, organizing, and advocacy for one another on the part of those incarcerated — even for the sake of protecting each other from a dangerous pandemic — is understood as a threat to security. These realities are not the fault of cruel or selfish bad actors in the system but are inevitable consequences of considering imprisonment as our primary tool for establishing justice.
Scholars Joshua Dubler and Vincent Lloyd, in their book Break Every Yoke, argue that even if you are not convinced of the wisdom or feasibility of abolishing prisons entirely, an abolitionist framework is the one most likely to actually lead to action that will end mass incarceration. At this time, we urgently need to cultivate an abolitionist imagination.
What does “abolitionist imagination” look like?
Prison abolition certainly incorporates a commitment to decarceration. Prison abolitionist activism generally focuses on campaigns to get people released — for example through changes in sentencing laws, organizing support for executive clemency, and bail funds to pay bail for those incarcerated pre-trial based on inability to pay.
But prison abolitionists are not just starry-eyed idealists who ignore the very real harm that violence can bring on communities. Instead, the abolitionist goal is to build sufficient community structures to prevent and respond to violence and harm, in a way compatible with human dignity and the inescapable fact of our relationships to one another in community, that we no longer need prisons to keep people safe.
Such on-the-ground abolitionist work takes different forms in different communities. It might be the gang violence prevention work of Fr. Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Industries. It might look like restorative-justice diversion programs, like Common Justice in New York, in which victims and perpetrators of violence can choose, instead of criminal prosecution, to participate in a months-long collaborative restorative-justice process aimed at making amends to the victim and preventing the perpetrator from doing further harm. It might look like a variety of transformative justice processes that address harm by addressing the structural causes, such as poverty and inequality, that led to the harmful act. It might be Circles of Support and Accountability, a re-entry model for those convicted of serious violent sex crimes, in which a “circle” of 3-5 volunteers — normal people! — meet weekly with the formerly incarcerated member to provide community and help them avoid triggers that might lead to doing further harm.
These processes are real alternatives already in practice across the country. Danielle Sered, the executive director of Common Justice, writes that many survivors of violence are “pragmatic,” and primarily want the person who harmed them not to harm anyone else — and because of that pragmatism, they often prefer Common Justice’s program to a prison sentence for the perpetrator, because imprisonment often leaves people more injured and with fewer resources, and therefore more likely to fall back into harmful patterns upon their release. Circles of Support and Accountability have been shown in recent studies to reduce the rate of rearrest for a new sex offense by almost 90 percent. Abolitionist interventions, in other words, are more effective than prisons at supporting public safety — if we can just find the will to participate in them. But they require real relationship with people who have done harm, whom our society prefers to “other” and throw away.
Such relationship, at the core of abolition, is also at the center of the Church’s call to the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). Every Christian is called to the work of reconciliation — the work that builds safe and just communities without the need for prisons.
After the horrors revealed in this COVID-19 crisis, the Church can no longer claim not to have seen what imprisonment is really about. We can only decide if we are brave enough to repent and imagine another way, the way of reconciliation and abolition. As our commitment to punishing those who have committed crimes by banishing them to prisons is putting not only their safety but our own at risk — as coronavirus transmission in prisons inevitably spreads to our communities too — we hear anew God’s words to the prophet Ezekiel: “Why will you die? … For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone.” God has no pleasure in the death occurring in our prisons or the death that will follow in our communities — deaths that we are inflicting on each other and ourselves by our reliance on the inhumane practice of incarceration. For the sake of the common good as well as the needs of those marginalized in our prisons and jails, we should obey the divine command that follows (Ezekiel 18:32): “Turn, then, and live.”
Hannah Bowman is a graduate student at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles; a literary agent at Liza Dawson Associates; and the founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons (christiansforabolition.org).