WASHINGTON, D.C. — A May 19 statement by 14 Catholic leaders, including five bishops, decried the danger people in prison are exposed to during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Reports of lack of testing suggest measurements of the impact of the virus are incomplete. We are deeply concerned that experiencing COVID-19 from behind bars could, for some, mean a de facto death sentence,” the “Statement of Solidarity: A Catholic Response to COVID-19 Behind Bars” said.
“The impacts of the coronavirus in jails, prisons, and detention centers are severe. Thousands of incarcerated individuals and facility staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, and over 100 people have died,” the statement said.
According to the Catholic Mobilizing Network, more than 25,000 incarcerated or detained individuals and facility staff had tested positive for COVID-19 as of May 13, and at least 370 have died. “The risk of infection in prisons, jails and detention centers outpaces that of the general population, in part due to under-resourced medical facilities and limited capacity for isolation inside,” the organization said in a separate May 19 statement.
“Overall, we have seen that jail systems have been quicker to pursue decarceration than prison systems. Recent reports show many jails have reduced their population by over 30 percent; most prison systems, by contrast, only saw a reduction of around 5 percent,” said a May 21 email to Catholic News Service from Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, the Catholic Mobilization Network’s executive director.
“All told, the fact that U.S. prisons and jails make up many of the current COVID-19 infection hot spots indicates that these levers are being underutilized, and unfortunately many people find themselves stuck in a ‘release’ pipeline,” added Vaillancourt Murphy, one of the statement’s signers.
“Pope Francis urges all of us not to forget those in prison and detention. No matter the harm one has caused or suffered, every person is made in the image of God and should be treated with dignity and respect,” the “Statement of Solidarity” said.
“The pandemic is particularly devastating to those living and working in prisons, jails, and detention and re-entry centers where close quarters have resulted in a dangerous spread of the disease,” it added. “We urge our fellow Catholics to join us in standing in solidarity with our all too often forgotten brothers and sisters who are affected by incarceration and detention.”
The statement noted that those in prison have little or no access to chaplains and lawyers during the pandemic, and the resulting isolation “increases anxiety and fear.”
Even if released, former prisoners face a separate daunting set of challenges. “Existing social services are overwhelmed,” the statement said, and in some states former prisoners are denied access to help with jobs, housing and nutrition. Those freed from immigration detention, it added, face “tremendous obstacles in receiving adequate access to care and transportation to be reunited with loved ones, and need social support to ensure compliance with immigration proceedings and successful community integration.”
The five bishops who signed the statement — all of whom chair a committee or subcommittee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — were Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; Archbishop Nelson J. Perez of Philadelphia, chairman of the Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church; Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism; Auxiliary Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville of Washington, chairman of the Committee on Migration; and retired Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona, chairman of the Subcommittee on Certification for Ecclesial Ministry and Service.
Other signers included Mercy Sister Mary Haddad, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association; Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA; Karen Clifton, executive coordinator of the Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition; and Jesuit Father Timothy P. Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.