Lament: Discriminating against Those in Jail

By Rebecca Lewis, STJ vestry member—
CHALLENGE (Becoming aware):

As we celebrate the approval of COVID vaccines and await their rollout, it is important to remember who is being left behind: those individuals, disproportionately non-white, who are currently incarcerated. Although “people in jail or prison are four times as likely to be infected with the coronavirus as the general population and twice as likely to die from it,” they are likely to be at the back of the line when it comes to getting access to a vaccine (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/03/opinion/coronavirus-vaccine-jail.html). According to Colorado Governor Jared Polis, “There’s no way it’s going to go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven’t committed any crime” (Id.)

This is both immoral and counterproductive; “Outbreaks in prisons and jails also pose a serious danger to the surrounding community. A study published in the journal Health Affairs in June traced 16 percent of Covid-19 cases in Chicago through mid-April to a node of infections at the Cook County Jail” (Id.).

The failure to prioritize incarcerated individuals for vaccination reflects a belief that those in prison have forfeited their right to concern and care—and it shows that, as a society, we are willing to endanger both those incarcerated and the surrounding communities in order to avoid providing that concern and care.

REFLECTION (What does God say about this?):

34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:34-40).

We have a persistent tendency in our society to categorize those in need as “deserving” and “undeserving.” Then, we (imperfectly) care for the deserving and feel justified in ignoring the undeserving. Men and women who are incarcerated almost always fall into the category of undeserving. Even in criminal justice reform conversations, many are careful to distinguish between those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses who might be deserving of mercy and those convicted of violent crimes, who are not.

Jesus makes no such distinctions. Help the hungry, visit the sick, visit those in prison. He tells us that these are equally compelling demands upon us all. He doesn’t say, “identify those in prison who are as virtuous and deserving of your attention as the hungry or the poor, and then visit them.” He says visit those in prison, period.

When Jesus calls us to visit those in prison, he is calling us to befriend sinners, to extend mercy and grace, as he did—and let us never forget that it is on his love for sinners, his grace, that we rest our own hopes of salvation.

ACTION (What is God calling me to do?):

  • Read more:
    • It is hard to know how to provide mercy to offenders and justice to victims. Seeking to understand this challenge is a first step towards a world in which we are able to acknowledge the hurt that victims of crime face, while also recognizing the humanity of those who commit crimes.
  • Get involved:
    • Organizations like the CT Bail Fund (http://www.ctbailfund.org) work to secure bail funds to gain pre-trial release for individuals and to build networks of support for those currently incarcerated. Consider donating time or money to such efforts.

PRAYER (Asking for God’s help and mercy):

O Thou who art the friend of all the friendless and who hast honored those who do Thy will by calling them Thy friends, we thank Thee for the gift of friendship and for the gift of Thy friendship. Befriend us with Thy Presence, we pray Thee; and, as any true friend would do, confront us with whatever realities about ourselves and Thee we need to know to be made whole again.

O Friend of the friendless, meet us here in our rejection with the gift of Thy acceptance.

O Friend of the sinner, meet us here in our guilty with the gift of Thy forgiveness.

O Friend of the lonely, meet us here in our isolation with the gift of Thy presence.

O Friend of the hopeless, meet us here in our despair with the gift of Thy faith in us.

So may we receive Thy grace by faith and leave these moments of worship to befriend the friendless, the sinner, the lonely, and the hopeless. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

              –John H. Boyle

SCRIPTURE for the road (Writing these things on my heart):

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (Matthew 25:40)

Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

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