While the rest of the United States practices social distancing, most prison inmates live in quarters where they physically cannot stay the recommended 6 feet apart. They usually have at least one cellmate, and some live in dormitory-like housing with close-set bunks. They eat together and exercise together. Many prisons ban hand sanitizer because it has alcohol in it.
Once the new coronavirus gets into a prison, it’s almost guaranteed to spread like wildfire. After the Cook County jail in Chicago diagnosed its first two cases a week ago, the number of infected jumped to 101 inmates and a dozen employees by Sunday, The New York Times reported. As of Sunday, correctional facilities had reported more than 350 total COVID-19 cases in 16 states.
“The most important thing is to try to keep COVID-19 out of prisons,” Prison Fellowship President and CEO James Ackerman said. “An outbreak of COVID-19 in the general population of a prison population is going to be a nightmare.”
To avoid that nightmare, many prisons are releasing inmates, but eligibility for release differs from prison to prison and state to state. Prison Fellowship has recommended jails release inmates who have served two-thirds of their sentences for nonviolent crimes and are not a threat to society, especially if they are high-risk for the disease.
By Sunday, officials had released at least 650 people from the New York City jail on Rikers Island to slow the spread of COVID-19. The number of cases in the prison had multiplied five times from just a week before, with more than 100 staff and 132 inmates testing positive for the disease, according to the city’s Department of Correction. Los Angeles County released about 10 percent of its prison population, some 1,700 inmates. Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where Cleveland is located, cut its prison population in half since March 12.
Releasing prisoners doesn’t necessarily mean they go free. Some must go on house arrest or supervised parole. Others eventually will have to go back behind bars and serve the rest of their time. Many were already eligible for release while they awaited trial but couldn’t afford bail.
Inside prisons, life has changed dramatically for the remaining inmates. On a normal day, an inmate may go to a job, a religious service, and a computer class, Ackerman said. Now, almost all correctional facilities have canceled such activities and are closed to volunteers and visitors. Prisons can’t have 300 people walking in the open yard close together, so many inmates are confined to their housing unit all day. New inmates are automatically quarantined in reception and orientation centers for two weeks. In federal prisons, which haven’t opted for early releases, officials will confine all prisoners to their cells or quarters starting on Wednesday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced.
“[Prisoners] have a lot of time on their hands, but very little to do,” Ackerman said. “When people can’t have visitors, when they can’t go to programs, people start to get agitated.”
Volunteers are exploring ways to minister to prisoners when they can no longer visit in person. Prison Fellowship supports chaplains and program officers with free Bibles, books, and curriculum. Some prisons plan to hold several back-to-back Easter services for just five people at a time.
In some cases, prisoners have found ways to help each other during lockdowns. Some have stepped up to lead programs when volunteers could no longer come, Ackerman said.
Others have found ways to serve the broader community from isolation. Ackerman said an Oklahoma City organization associated with retailer Hobby Lobby offered to donate material for sewing masks to the quilting club at the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, a women’s prison in McLoud, Okla. The inmates have so far made more than 1,000 masks for local hospitals.
Even though people can’t visit prisoners in person right now, Ackerman urged continued prayer for them.
“Right now is a time of crisis, and in times of crisis, people worry, and when people worry, they often seek the Lord,” he said. “Pray for incarcerated men and women to come to know the living God through Christ Jesus. … As the Apostle Paul wrote in Hebrews, remember those in prison as if you were serving with them.”