Local and State Faith Leaders Send Letter to Congressional Leadership—Urging Lawmakers to Protect Incarcerated Men, Women, and Staff in Future COVID-19 Legislation
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Prison Fellowship®, the nation's largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families, joined other local, state, and national faith leaders and organizations in urging Congressional leadership to remember the prisoner and those responsible for their care while drafting future legislation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
These letters’ policy requests build on criminal justice provisions of the CARES Act and existing actions by the executive branch to protect federal prisoners and correctional staff. Despite encouraging recent signs of national progress in facing COVID-19, the pandemic continues to spread quickly in prisons. The number of positive cases in prisons has surpassed 36,000, with correctional facilities accounting for seven out of the nation’s 10 largest COVID-19 hotspots. Courts have intervened to speed the Bureau of Prisons’ response. Meanwhile, half of reentry providers in a recent survey fear a permanent end to their operations.
“Now more than ever, we must continue to be a voice for the vulnerable—including those serving time behind bars,” said Heather Rice-Minus, VP of Government Affairs and Church Mobilization for Prison Fellowship. “We are working hard to forge a bipartisan path that will ensure the final bill delivered to the President’s desk remembers those in prison and are encouraged by the positive feedback we have received by both sides of the aisle on the priorities outlined in our letter.”
More than 20 local and state leaders with faith-based organizations signed a letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to urge them and their colleagues to take further steps in protecting incarcerated men and women, correctional staff, and returning citizens in future legislative responses to COVID-19.
KEY PRIORITIES ADDRESSED IN THE LETTER FOR FUTURE LEGISLATION INCLUDE:
- EXPEDITE COMPASSIONATE RELEASE IN THE FEDERAL PRISON SYSTEM
The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and federal courts use this tool to reduce sentences for federal prisoners on a case-by-case basis for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.” Many medically vulnerable prisoners at high-risk of contracting COVID-19 have been seeking relief through this mechanism. Congress should temporarily waive the current 30-day waiting period for federal prisoners to file a motion for compassionate release directly with a federal court.
- USE DIGITAL PROGRAMMING
Federal prisons have restricted traditional face-to-face programming and visitation given social distancing guidelines. Distribution of electronic tablets among those in federal prisons will guarantee safe, continued access to rehabilitative programming while the threat of COVID-19 persists.
- INCREASE REENTRY FUNDING
Unemployment, addiction, housing insecurity, and recidivism mark the return home for too many returning citizens. COVID-19’s disruption to labor markets and local and state social services could exacerbate these outcomes. Reentry service providers often provide the supportive housing, mentoring, and workforce development needed for flourishing after incarceration. However, reentry providers are struggling during this pandemic; in a recent survey, 75 percent of providers reported suspending services or closing and have fear a permanent end to operations. Whether through increasing Second Chance Act grants or other funding mechanisms, Congress must ensure adequate funding for these community institutions to meet urgent reentry needs.
- STOP PENALIZING SECOND-CHANCE ENTREPRENEURS
An estimated one in three Americans has a criminal record. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) eligibility rules deny vital emergency relief to the numerous small business owners among them. Replacing current PPP sanctions with narrowly tailored guidelines that exclude only those with recent fraud convictions would judiciously use federal dollars without prohibiting relief for valuable small businesses. Like other Main Street leaders, entrepreneurs with a criminal record face an unprecedented crisis and ought not be excluded from access to the lifeline they may need to keep their businesses afloat and their staff employed.
Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion legislative package that reflects the House Democratic majority’s priorities for Congress’s “Phase Four” response to the coronavirus and its mounting economic and public health costs. However, the Senate majority has sharply criticized the HEROES Act and is likely to craft its own legislation.