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A prison sentence should not mean death by COVID-19

fine 3d image of dark grunge prison

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel recently used her position of influence to attempt to distract from the truth of what is happening in our community.

For years, before the current public health crisis, the African American Christian Clergy Coalition (AACCC), as well as thousands of other Arizonans, have been working for common sense criminal justice reform to combat Arizona’s growing prison population. Now, in these unprecedented times, that work has only become more urgent in order to save lives. Our jails and prisons have been a slow-burning public health disaster for decades. Arizona’s prison health care system has been in litigation for years, with ongoing unsafe conditions reported during this pandemic. Wellington Coppess–a man whose Hepatitis C went untreated while he was  incarcerated and progressed to cirrhosis–is one of numerous examples of the real harm facing people in Arizona’s prisons. COVID-19 is now adding fuel to an already burning fire, and incarcerated people are in the direct path.

Dr. Warren Stewart

Dr. Warren Stewart

So far, less than one percent of the incarcerated people in Arizona’s prisons have been tested. Of those tested, there are 50 confirmed cases at five different prisons and two incarcerated people have died.  During these unprecedented times, when everyone else is coming together, divisive language from Adel pitting criminal justice reform advocates against victims’ rights organizations undermines public safety and public health. Individuals in our prisons have often been victims themselves. In fact, Adel’s office recently prosecuted Danielle Sutherland, a survivor of sexual assault and a military veteran, years later, despite her work to rehabilitate herself. When her sentence begins,  Danielle will go from being able to socially distance at home to the close quarters of Perryville Women’s Prison where at least one person has tested positive for COVID-19.

The practical policy solutions, including releasing individuals from prison, are being implemented across the country because public health experts and criminal justice officials agree it is the most effective way to reduce the spread of the virus. Our only agenda right now is to save lives. We are simply asking Gov. Doug Ducey to allow elderly people, individuals with underlying health conditions, and those who are scheduled to be released in the coming months to come home where they can safely socially distance with family. These are the same steps Attorney General Barr has directed the Bureau of Prisons to take. Numerous other jurisdictions have also acted to reduce their jail and prison populations. For example, Hennepin County, Minnesota reduced its jail population by 44% when prosecutors, correctional staff, and public defenders worked together to respond to COVID-19. Action from the Arkansas Governor will expedite the release of over 1,000 people to help curb the spread of this virus.

Rev. Reginald Walton

Rev. Reginald Walton

We fight for criminal justice reform because we believe in justice. Arizona’s criminal justice system disproportionately punishes people of color, relies upon private prison companies motivated by profit, and sends people to prison for extremely lengthy sentences. It is unfortunate that it took a pandemic to emphasize what we know to be true: countless people living in state prisons should not be there in the first place. They would not be there if they had been convicted of the same crime in a different state.

The fundamental issue here is how some seem to hold onto a backwards notion of “justice.”

Too many people believe “justice” means punishment, confinement, even death. As Amos 5:24 says, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Our biblical teachings show us that true justice means accountability, healing, reconciliation, and transformation. It means communities coming together in times of crisis to provide safety for all people, even those who have committed wrongs.

We are invested in ensuring public safety in our communities. But that pursuit of public safety cannot only extend to some Maricopa residents. Our county attorney must work to keep all of us safe–an important responsibility that must include people confined in jails and prisons.

Dr. Warren Stewart is chairperson of the African American Christian Clergy Coalition and Pastor Reginald Walton is chair of Civic Engagement Committee, African American Christian Clergy Coalition.

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