The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has brought new challenges to society that demand solutions. One such dilemma that has emerged is the spread of the novel coronavirus amongst prison populations and staff.
In Maryland, for example, there are over 200 coronavirus cases reported in the Maryland Prison system. In New York, according to the Wall Street Journal, more than 800 city correction employees have tested positive for Covid-19, and eight have died. Also, 1,200 inmates have tested positive and there have been at least 10 deaths from COVID-19.
Alarming reports such as these across the nation have sparked a response by the government to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in the prison population and among correctional employees.
In Washington, for example, the governor has commuted approximately 300 sentences, and over 40 prisoners have received work release furloughs. Around the country, many low-level and non-violent offenders have been released.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, around 300 prisoners have been released in Orange County, Florida. Over 100 inmates have been released from prisons in Nevada and Alabama; 531 people have been released in Philadelphia, PA, and 1,000 prisoners are slated to be released from New Jersey prisons. Similar efforts underway in most states across the country.
In Maryland, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby has been at the forefront of the effort to reduce the prison population at-risk for coronavirus, and on Sunday, April 19th, 2020, Governor Larry Hogan signed an executive order granting early release to hundreds of inmates to reduce the spread of the disease.
The ripple effect of such efforts are having an impact globally. According to reports, Poland has announced plans to release up to 12,000 convicts, and Iran has already released close to 80,000 prisoners.
UN experts have urged action, including Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who stated,
“In many countries, detention facilities are overcrowded, in some cases dangerously so. The consequences of neglecting them are potentially catastrophic.”
What should inform the Muslim community’s position?
Following in the example of the Prophet Muhammad , the noble qualities of justice, mercy and compassion must be factored into the equation.
He said: “The merciful will be shown mercy by the Most Merciful. Be merciful to those on the earth and the One in the heavens will have mercy upon you.” (Tirmidhi 1924).
According to a different hadith, or recorded narration of Prophetic sayings, he said: “Allah does not show mercy to those who do not show mercy to people.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
As Imam Omar Suleiman, founder of Yaqeen Institute, stated in part on the Poor People’s Campaign Appeal on Twitter on April 20, 2020:
“Ramadan is a time of fasting and sacrifice to clarify what is necessary and just. It is right and just that protections are enacted for people in mental health facilities, prisons and juvenile detention centers, especially supplies, personnel, testing and treatment. This includes the release of all at risk populations and non-violent offenders and detainees. There are 2.3 million incarcerated people and over 52,000 people in detention centers.”
Conditions in most prisons today clearly create an unsafe environment with regards to the elevated risk of infection with the novel coronavirus. Releasing low-level, non-violent offenders who are most at risk is an act of Prophetic mercy.
As stated in the Holy Quran: if anyone saves one life, it’s as if they had saved all of mankind. (Surah Ma’idah 5:32). Saving one non-violent offender from the contagion of Covid-19 in prison may not seem significant in the grand scheme of things, but that act of mercy and compassion reverberates and impacts on greater society.
In Islamic law, or shariah, maqasid (aims or purposes) and maslaha (welfare or public interest) are two doctrines that inform rulings by jurists.
Maslahah “consist of the five essential values (al-daruriyyat al-khamsah) namely religion, life, intellect, lineage and property.” In this case, it serves the public interest to attempt to reduce the spread of novel coronavirus, thereby furthering preservation of life.
Our country’s broken criminal justice system is in desperate need of restorative measures. Prison is not a place where a civilized society can stow away prisoners, discard the key, and forget about them. Click To Tweet
Prisoners are entitled to basic human rights. To this effect, it is documented that as Caliph, the beloved cousin of the Prophet , Ali ibn Abi Talib , used to inspect the prisons, meet the prisoners in them and inquire about their circumstances.
The urgency of the principles of mercy and preservation of life need to be a priority for those entrusted with the authority to make a difference in the lives of the many low-level, non-violent offenders that find themselves caught in the sinuous vice grip of the penal system.
This Ramadan, as we seek to uphold these principles in our daily activities, Muslims cannot neglect prisoners’ rights.
We must make a difference where we can.
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