For decades, the United States has normalized the brutal and dehumanizing treatment of incarcerated people – from making solitary confinement commonplace (a practice detrimental physiologically as well as mentally and emotionally), to charging exorbitant amounts for phone calls to maintain contact with loved ones, to normalizing the crisis of rampant sexual assault. In addition to the brutality, dehumanization and exploitation of our prison industrial complex, it is also a tool of systemic racism and violence, devastating the lives of black and brown people and their families at exponentially higher rates than those with white skin privilege.
These practices have nothing to do with justice, restoring relationship, or protecting and sustaining life. They are anti-Christ. In Scripture when Jesus calls his followers to action, such as in Matthew 25, it has everything to do with demonstrating and dignifying relationships with the most vulnerable – including people in prisons.
Now as a pandemic clashes with our prison industrial complex, we must not forget our incarcerated siblings. We must continue to demand their human rights be recognized. Especially now, that means healthcare and even release for many.
Andrea Circle Bear was a 30-year-old Native woman sentenced to 26 months in a federal prison for selling $850 worth of drugs. Andrea was pregnant when she started to serve her sentence. Last month she got sick with COVID-19. She ended up on a ventilator and gave birth to her child while intubated. Two weeks later, Andrea died.
Dying from COVID-19 must not be another collateral risk for the incarcerated or immigrants held in detention centers. From Ohio to California, prisons are predictably becoming the epicenters of COVID-19 outbreaks. How can a system that sustains brutality and exploitation possibly keep incarcerated people healthy during a pandemic?
The exploitation is not limited to the incarcerated. Many correctional officers do not make a living wage. How can a for-profit prison system be held accountable for brutality, exploitation, and dehumanization when – according to the capitalist system from which it was born – its measure of success is profit, not human well-being? This is anti-Christ.
My family and I have joined mutual aid networks to get lifesaving supplies to incarcerated people during the pandemic. We have participated in car protests, demanding care and rights for people and for the vulnerable to be released. We continue to call on the leaders who have the power to choose life and safety for so many, asking them to join the few who have commuted sentences or freed vulnerable people.
Right now, we are reacting for the sake of survival and harm reduction. We must. But we cannot lose sight of, or stop imagining, what a just and beautiful world really can be, one where the thirsty always have clean and free water, the sick have healthcare, and the isolated have the means to maintain dignified human connection.
Rev. Tracy Howe Wispelwey is Minister for Congregational and Community Engagement for the United Church of Christ.