I first published this in my weekly newsletter. You can subscribe here.
Earlier this week I joined a conference call for the purpose of holding vigil and praying for a man who was lying, near death, in an ICU in the Chicago suburbs. Each of us on the call had gotten to know this man within the confines of a maximum-security prison; he was a student in a graduate-level degree program preparing incarcerated men for ministry. Now, having contracted COVID-19, he was facing death alone; the virus and his incarcerated status kept his community at a distance.
At the time I’m writing this the man is still alive. Pray for him, please.
In addition to the grief I felt on that call I also felt anger. After all, it’s been known that this virus would be especially devastating to those confined to prisons. Social distancing and additional anti-bacterial cleaning are not options in these places. We knew, in other words, that barring a change in policy, many incarcerated people would become sick and die.
In a way, our willingness to allow these men and women to risk death is emblematic of our criminal justice system. As authors like Michelle Alexander and Dominique Gilliard have shown, this is a system that disproportionately prosecutes, imprisons, and surveils people of color, and especially African American and Latino men. We know this – and if we don’t, it’s a purposeful ignorance – and we accept it as a reasonable cost paid for a certain way of life.
I recently heard someone say that a time of trial, of the sort we’re in the middle of now, reveals what we’d previously worked to hide. Perhaps another way of saying this is that we can no longer hide the inhumanity to which we’d grown accustomed. I pray my incarcerated brother lives. I pray that the many others who have become sick get well. But can we also pray that the cruelties we’ve accepted would, in these pressing days, become unacceptable to us?