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Pastors: Protect prisoners from COVID-19 to live out the Easter value of redemption

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.

Dr. Warren Stewart

Dr. Warren Stewart

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.

Pastor Reginald Walton

Pastor Reginald Walton

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.

3 comments

  1. middlegroundprisonreform

    Several al serious mistakes in the above opinion. First, the imminent danger of death commutations recently granted by the Gov. had nothing whatsoever to do with CORONA virus-related illnesses. Nor do the two remaining on his desk. Second, and more importantly, in Arizona, unlike what is apparently possible in other states, the Governor has no legal authority to mass release legally sentenced prisoners. His only release authority is via the commutation of sentence power authorized in Arizona’s Constitution. And he can only exercise that power if the Board of Executive Clemency first makes a recommendation to him on an individual prisoners’ case. It’s a check and balance system designed to avoid fraud or corruption in the process. And it is not a rapid process. Hence, unless martial law is declared, this is not a way to address the underlying problem. The Governor does have authority to order the Dept. of Corrections to take much more aggressive steps to allow prisoners to protect themselves in Several of the same ways we all are and to monitor their actual and ongoing implementation in each and every prison, and he could do that today without hearings, recommendations or any formal legal proceedings. We urge immediate availability of alcohol based sanitizers, masks, and adequate cleaning supplies for use by all prisoners NOW. TODAY.

  2. Steven Scharboneau

    In response to middlegroundprisonreform’s statement – To claim that the recent commutations granted by the Governor “had nothing whatsoever to do with CORONA virus [sic]” is a wide sweeping and over-broad assertion which mirrors tone for the rest of your comment. The Governor has notoriously granted very few commutations and granting three during these times seems like anything but a coincidence.

    For being such a critical one, your comment is exceptionally short sighted and pessimistic. For example, you state that “[h]is only release authority is via the commutation of sentence power authorized in Arizona’s Constitution.” This is not true as in the same article and section of the constitution that you referenced grants reprieve powers to the Governor. Another example is that you state, “he can only exercise that power if the Board of Executive Clemency first makes a recommendation to him on an individual prisoners’ case.” This is also not true. The Governor is granted the power, by the legislature, to suspend statutes in certain state of emergency declarations. Furthermore, large scale reprieves in times of crisis are not unprecedented and looks to possibly be feasible in Arizona.

    You state that the Governor essentially has no authority to order the Department of Correction to take “much more aggressive steps.” This is just simply not true. Title 36 in the Arizona Revised Statutes grants the Director of the Department of Health and the Governor very broad governing powers during a state of emergency declaration due to a pandemic. Furthermore, the Director of ADCRR is appointed by the Governor and answers to him which carries a significant amount of implicit power.

    In summation, I’m grateful to the pastors for their point of view and sentiments on this Easter Sunday. These times are unusual and many of the laws governing how to act (or react) during these times are unclear. I too support getting protective gear to the incarcerated. However, rather than taking a grim view and shutdown approach to examining solutions to this serious problem, I urge everyone to be open minded and creative when thinking about how to save human lives.

  3. Thank you Dr. Stewart and Pastor Walton for calling attention to the DOC’s reaction to the Covid virus. As any of our state’s criminal justice reform advocates and any family member who has ever had, or has, a member inside the DOC will say–this is only ONE problem that exists with them. Because they are allowed to have a totally closed system with no monitoring or input from ANYbody, we can only imagine how bad it must be in there. What we need more than anything is for advocates, family members of inmates and good people like yourselves who represent the faith-based community to unite as one voice saying we won’t stand for things the way they are. I pray for this to happen and I thank you for your part in bringing more awareness to the problems.

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