How detainees undergo most from the COVID-19 pandemic | The alternate
COVID-19 affects everyone. But like most disasters, most of us are uncomfortable as this virus becomes another life and death experience for the weakest.
There have been many lively debates recently about the release of non-violent offenders from prisons, prisons and juvenile detention centers. What has been missing from the discussion, however, is how this affects the most vulnerable, who may soon be released, and with it the rest of society.
A virus like COVID-19 entering a prison is surely a nightmare for cruise ships on steroids! And the reality is that many who are held on bail in district prisons are there simply because they cannot afford the bail that more affluent citizens can. In fact, on a given day, 60 percent of the U.S. prison population is made up of people who have been sentenced for nothing but are too poor to bail or hire a lawyer to work for them.
But let's think about who these 60 percent of the prison population are. They are mostly homeless, addicted, people with mental health problems and poor.
Data from a national study in five major American cities show that at the time of the arrest, 63 to 83 percent of the detainees had drugs in their system. And according to the Mental Illness Policy Organization, more mentally ill people are in prisons and prisons than in hospitals.
But just putting these people on the streets – still empty streets – can cause long-term devastation for a short-term solution. Without the much needed community resources to maintain them, most of them will end up in these prisons again, but now they are more likely to be infected with the virus than if they were exposed to workers who used the facilities to enter.
All of this shows how broken our criminal justice and social system is. And when systems are broken and no longer work, the weakest are always the most affected.
Tragically, our prisons have become rubbish dumps for those who society has neglected by closing countless psychiatric facilities, who do not invest in adequate and affordable drug rehabilitation, and who prefer to imprison the poor rather than invest in the poor (although the prison is often) more expensive than college education).
Yes, it would be terrible if the corona virus was brought by outside agents to the vulnerable detainees, from whom "social distancing" is far from possible.
The ministry in which I work works with juvenile offenders. Since we have spoken to many adolescents who are due to be released due to the pandemic, many say that they feel anxious, vulnerable, abandoned and often desperate for what they will return to.
It is difficult enough today to be locked up without family visits, convalescence groups, Bible studies by external volunteers, school classes or counseling. As a result, employees are required to keep the children focused and busy around the clock without being offered anything positive. And the greatest thing these children need are positive adults who connect with them.
The actual teachers and counselors, as well as the leaders and facilitators of Bible studies, are as critical as the content they bring.
And believe it or not, many of these children are extremely afraid of being released prematurely into a world that has changed completely since they left. The reentry work is hard enough. We have been working hard and hard to create jobs, schooling, community service, church introductions, and other positive groups. But none of them are in operation now. So if someone comes out of jail and has to take care of themselves without such resources, the resulting results are not difficult to predict.
Two girls, who we know were part of our Bible study, drop out this week as there is great pressure to release young people in our state. Both are scared. One is taken to a nursing home with four other children because there is no other place to put them. She knows that she needs more support than she will and is rightly placed in a situation that bypasses all the work that she has done with our re-entry staff to ensure that their needs are met and they are successful can pass into healthy adulthood.
It's not a good thing to keep people locked up during a pandemic. But striving for quick, short-term solutions can cause much more devastation in the long term than so many of our most vulnerable citizens can afford. Most of us will get through this. But not all of us. We are asked to remember the prisoners (Heb 13: 3) and Jesus said how we treat the poor, sick and imprisoned is what we ultimately treat (Mt 25:45).
How can our churches think by providing vocational training and employment opportunities for ex-offenders? What about recovery programs during this time, as well as parenting, financial budgeting, and tutoring for many who missed such opportunities due to detention?
Now let's pray for those in prison for whom this is far more than a simple inconvenience.
Dr. Scott Larson is the president and co-founder of Straight Ahead Ministries, an international faith-based organization that works with juvenile offenders both in prisons and when they return to the community.