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May 14, 2020

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Paul Manafort is now out of prison after serving only a fraction of his sentence. (Photo: Justin Lane/EPA, via Shutterstock)
Yesterday, Paul Manafort, Trump’s ex-campaign chairman, was released from prison to serve out the rest of his term in home confinement, because of concerns for his health as COVID-19 spreads among prison populations - via The New York Times.
"For I was in prison and you visited me. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." - Matthew 25: 36c, 40b
I actually don’t have much to say about Paul Manafort’s release from prison, because it is such a blatant expression of political favoritism that the naked audacity of it speaks for itself. But I wanted to use his case as a jumping-off point for today’s newsletter because his release comes in such sharp contrast to the plight of thousands of other incarcerated people in the United States — the nation that has the highest level of incarceration of any on the planet. Manafort came nowhere near meeting the requirements of minimum time served to be released, while many that continue to live in terror of the virus inside our prisons have served far more of their sentences than he did.

Manafort’s release highlights, once again, that only some lives are valued in our country. I am not trying to say that Manafort’s life does not deserve to be respected. It does. But so do all of the others who are caged and subject to the ravages of COVID-19. His life is not more valuable than theirs. And yet this administration signals to us, over and over again, that the only lives that have value are the ones that are white and male and, most especially, those that are willing to do anything to support this president. 

The gospel passage from Matthew reminds us that scripture points us firmly in the opposite direction. We are not meant to validate the accepted norm that “the wealthy and the powerful always go first.” Instead, we are charged to listen to and address the needs of the least of these. Both the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel urge us to flip the script — to consider the rights of those with the least power first, not last. That is true in ordinary times. It is especially so during a global pandemic.

Yesterday, Michelle Alexander published an opinion piece in The New York Times about the reality of life behind prison bars in America during this crisis. I urge you to read in full. It includes a letter written by a person imprisoned in Ohio right now — one who is not only sick himself, but caring for other prisoners who are also sick. The Times article about Manafort at the top of this article quotes the criteria for early release written by Attorney General Willam Barr: “give priority in implementing these new standards to the most vulnerable inmates and the most affected facilities.” Would that this were actually happening. Please do not be fooled — this administration, and many of our elected officials across the country, are doing the opposite. The letter Alexander quotes lays bare what is really happening in our prisons. Please read it. You will weep.
Advocate in whatever way you are able for the people held in our prisons. If you can, donate money to organizations that are seeking to secure their release. Donate to bail-out funds (here's one). If you cannot donate, find organizations that are assisting them and see if you can get involved. Write letters to people in prison, letting them know that you are aware of what is happening — and that you are bearing witness that they are seen, they are beloved, and they are valued. Speak up about this issue.
God of the outsiders, God of the margins, God of the prisoners, God of the least of these. You heard the cries of the Israelites in Egypt, and you hear the cries of Americans who are incarcerated now. Soften the hearts of our American Pharaohs. Unlock the cages so that prisoners may be sent home to safety in this time of crisis. Strengthen us to continue advocating for the rights of those who are too often discarded without thought. In your holy name we pray. Amen.
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