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More than 500 faith leaders, professionals, and institutions across the nation demand Bureau of Prisons adhere to CDC guidelines, release qualifying federal prisoners from custody to minimize COVID-19 infections

Bureau continues dangerous pattern of nonadherence to CDC guidelines and federal mandates
August 12, 2020

Media contact: Michael Givens, Associate Director of Strategic Communications
Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, 857-540-0617 (c)

More than 500 faith leaders from nearly every state in the nation have signed a letter demanding the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) act in accordance with two memos issued by U.S. Attorney General William Barr and provide a clear and transparent pathway for qualifying federal prisoners to be released and facilities to adhere to social distancing guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Today national and state health codes mandate the care of vulnerable elders living in confined spaces,” said Father Duane Pribula, a retired priest with the Diocese of Crookston in Moorhead, MN. “Compassion and common sense compels us to uphold the dignity of persons in prisons. Prisons are not designed for COVID-19 healthcare. There is no question that we Christians are commanded to defend the God-given dignity of every inmate, especially during this dehumanizing pandemic.”

On March 26, Attorney General William Barr issued a memo to BOP Director Michael Carvajal encouraging the release of certain classes of inmates into home confinement programs so as to minimize COVID-19 infections. The BOP was slow to respond and in early April, Barr released a more strident directive to release incarcerees at federal facilities overrun by COVID-19. Both memos also encourage adherence to CDC social distancing and sanitation guidelines. The Bureau, according to the group of faith leaders, has continued its resistance, and the Attorney General has taken minimal action to ensure that his directives are followed. As of August 11, 111 federal prisoners have succumbed to COVID-19, and more than 6,000 have tested positive—a figure believed to be undercounted due to lack of sufficient testing.

Michael “Rattler” Markus, one of the more than 128,000 people in federal custody, has described startling conditions at the Federal Correctional Institution, Sandstone in Minnesota where he’s housed.

“[W]e have no social distancing…There are 62 men sharing three toilets, one urinal, three showers, and five sinks,” Markus said in a May 28 article in The Progressive. “We are a tinderbox waiting for a spark, and the guards are the spark. Because we have only one source of contact with the outside and that is the guard. We live in a bubble, and the guards are the germ carriers.”

Markus, an Indigenous water protector, serving a 36-month prison sentence for his role in defending the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), has said that his attorneys have informed him that the Bureau will not approve him for home confinement.

The letter—sent three months after the Federal Public & Community Defenders Legislative Committee shared similar concerns with members of Congress—has a list of signatories that include ordained ministers Massachusetts State Representative Jack Lewis and Minnesota State Senator Carla Nelson. North Dakota State Senator Tim Mathern also signed on to the letter. Approximately 50 faith-based institutions signed on to the letter in a show of solidarity.

“We’re asking that the Bureau of Prisons do the right thing and release more incarcerees and follow social distancing guidelines,” said Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, CEO and president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, co-creator of the Love Resists initiative to address the criminalization of entire groups of people in the wake of President Trump’s November 2016 presidential win. “The conditions we’re hearing about are horrendous and the Bureau’s slowness to adhere to multiple federal mandates is not only irresponsible, it is playing a dangerous game with the lives of those still confined in federal facilities. The deaths of 111 people could have been prevented if action were more swift. The Bureau’s inaction is unethical and deadly.”

Rabbi Elyse Wechterman, executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association in Wyncote, PA, said that this issue is also about honoring the innate worth of all people.

“Justice in the Jewish tradition must rest on the upholding of the dignity of every single human being as created in God’s image,” she said. “When the pursuit of justice itself causes suffering and injustice, something has gone terribly wrong. We are obligated to work for the safety and security of all with whom we share this planet, which means not causing illness and suffering to those who are imprisoned at this time.”

“Compassion, hence love-based justice, is perhaps the foundational pillar of the Islamic—hence Sufi—spiritual tradition,” said Moji Agha, a Boulder, CO-based Sufi Muslim and peace and justice activist with a vow of service and poverty. “Thus, an ideal outcome would be for no one to suffer injustice, let alone be imprisoned unjustly. And further, may the word ‘enemy’ disappear from our human consciousness one day.”


To speak with a faith leader, including those quoted above, please contact Michael Givens at 857-540-0617 or


Love Resists, a joint collaboration between the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist Association, has joined an ad hoc group of loved ones of Indigenous and Native people currently incarcerated in federal prisons in advocating for a fair decarceration process.