Easter is a time for redemption, rebirth, and reflection. This year, that message carries even more meaning as we adapt to tremendous changes in response to the current pandemic. As public health officials and elected leaders race against the clock to avoid mass tragedy, one group of people – incarcerated people and corrections officers – must be considered an integral part of the conversation because they, their families and the community are in the direct path of the potential disaster.
Nearly 42,000 people live in Arizona state prisons – sentenced to serve time, but not sentenced to die. So far, two people incarcerated in Arizona prisons and at least three state corrections officers have tested positive for COVID-19. The Arizona Department of Corrections took some measures in response to the outbreak after an emergency motion was filed in an already long-standing lawsuit over inadequate prison healthcare. The department used to charge every incarcerated person for their own soap. Soap is now being given free. The department used to charge every inmate $4 to see a doctor. That fee has been waived for those experiencing flu-like symptoms. After a whistleblower complaint was filed from corrections officers who claimed they were being told they could not wear masks to protect themselves, the department started providing masks. And just this Wednesday, the governor decided to release three terminally ill inmates because of the virus.
Despite these precautions, families of incarcerated people say their loved ones are still having trouble getting soap, medical care and basic information about COVID-19. More must be done.
If the Arizona Department of Corrections continues to be reactive instead of proactive in its preparations for COVID-19, there will be a killing field in the prisons. Folks sentenced to just a few years will be handed down a death sentence, not from a jury or a judge but from sheer negligence.
So what are we suggesting? Reducing the prison population density is also one of the most effective ways to reduce the impact of an outbreak, given that it is impossible to safely social distance in overcrowded facilities. There are precedents and proven acts that can be taken to address this issue:
- Attorney General William Barr recently recommended that the federal Bureau of Prisons release people who are elderly or who have underlying health conditions to stop the spread of COVID-19. These individuals pose little risk to society and it is the just thing to bring them home and out of harm’s way.
- Governors of Ohio, Kentucky, and Illinois have followed the Attorney General’s lead and are taking steps to release people.
It is time for Gov. Doug Ducey to do the same. More than 12 percent of people in Arizona prisons are over the age of 55. Many others have serious underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus. Our governor has the power to issue an executive order and immediately bring those most vulnerable people home from prison in a way that will protect both public health and public safety. He has the power to show compassion and the true meaning of redemption and second chances.
Many letters from advocates of prison reform have reached the governor’s desk in the past weeks, and we were glad to hear on Wednesday that Gov. Ducey released three terminally ill inmates. But the governor can do what other forward-thinking governors have done: release those prisoners who are of no harm to public safety, but who may succumb to an outcome far greater than punishment for their crime would warrant.
It is not only the smart thing to do – it is the right thing to do. As we celebrate Easter this week, I urge my fellow Arizonans to reflect upon Hebrews 13:3 “Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body.”
Dr. Warren Stewart is Chairperson of the African American Christian Clergy Coalition and Pastor Reginald Walton is Chair of Civic Engagement Committee of the African American Christian Clergy Coalition.