Federal executions, inmate vaccines and other criminal justice stories to cover amid the pandemic

The execution chamber in a Florida prison. (Courtesy of Florida Department of Corrections via Creative Commons)

After a 17-year break, federal executions resumed under the Trump administration. These executions took place while prisons were facing coronavirus outbreaks and, in a rare move, continued through the lame-duck period of Donald Trump’s presidency.

The recent executions have reignited the national debate about capital punishment and put President Joe Biden’s anti-death penalty views and Catholic faith in the spotlight. Religious beliefs have long been entangled with this contentious issue. Several faith traditions, including the Roman Catholic Church, oppose the death penalty while others, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, support it.

A 2015 survey from the Pew Research Center found that those who sit in the pews do not always agree with their denomination’s official position on the issue. Former U.S. Attorney General William Barr, a Catholic and driving force behind the Trump administration’s decision to resume federal executions, is a high-profile example of this divide.

But it is not just presidential politics complicating this and other criminal justice issues in the U.S. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic does, as well. From vaccines to prison ministry, the COVID-19 virus is spurring ethical dilemmas and religious issues that affect those living behind bars.

The latest edition of ReligionLink features experts that can help you report on the death penalty and other coronavirus concerns arising in U.S. prisons.

Death penalty debate reignites amid presidential transition

Background information

Trump administration
In a June 2020 interview with EWTN, Trump said, “I am totally in favor of the death penalty for heinous crimes.” Barr resumed federal executions in July 2019.

Biden administration
The Biden campaign has pledged to work to pass bills to end the federal death penalty and incentivize states to do likewise.

Related research

Possible sources

  • Kevin Cokley

    Kevin Cokley is an educational psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies African American psychology. He wrote a 2019 piece titled “Why support for the death penalty is much higher among white Americans” for The Conversation.

  • Robert Dunham

    Robert Dunham is the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

  • Brandon Garrett

    Brandon Garrett is a law professor at Duke University. He co-wrote The Death Penalty: Concepts and Insights and is the author of End of its Rope: How Killing the Death Penalty Can Revive Criminal Justice.

  • Jeffrey L. Kirchmeier

    Jeffrey L. Kirchmeier is a law professor at The City University of New York School of Law. He teaches about capital punishment and criminal law and wrote the book Imprisoned by the Past: Warren McCleskey and the American Death Penalty, which chronicles the history of the death penalty in the U.S.

  • Russell Moore

    Russell Moore is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

  • Erik C. Owens

    Erik C. Owens is an associate professor of the practice in theology at Boston College, where he also directs the international studies program. He is the co-editor of three books, including Religion and the Death Penalty: A Call for Reckoning and Gambling: Mapping the American Moral Landscape.

  • Helen Prejean

    Sister Helen Prejean is a Roman Catholic nun and author of Dead Man Walking, an account of her ministry with death row inmates in Louisiana’s Angola State Prison that was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 1996. Her most recent book is The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions. Prejean, whose office is in New Orleans, is one of the most popular and outspoken opponents of the death penalty.

  • Stacy Rector

    Stacy Rector is the executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. She also is an ordained Presbyterian minister.

  • Graham Reside

    Graham Reside is the executive director of the Cal Turner Program for Moral Leadership for the Professions at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tennessee. He researches ethical leadership, religion and globalization and race, religion and poverty. He is also an expert on prison reform.

  • Mathew N. Schmalz

    Mathew N. Schmalz is a professor of religious studies at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. He specializes in global Catholicism, the papacy and Catholicism/culture issues in the U.S. His article “Scientology and Catholicism Do Mix: A Note on Teaching New Religions in a Catholic Classroom” appeared in the January 2006 edition of the journal Teaching Theology & Religion. He wrote a 2018 piece titled “Can you be Christian and support the death penalty?”

Who should receive the COVID-19 vaccine first?

The first doses of COVID-19 vaccines are being administered across the U.S., raising ethical questions about which populations should be among the first to roll up their sleeves and receive a portion of their state’s limited allocation. Prioritizing vaccinations for prisoners, who are serving criminal sentences in congregate settings susceptible to outbreaks, has already proved to be a controversial decision in some parts of the country.

Background information

Related research

Possible sources

  • Galen Carey

    Galen Carey is vice president of government relations for the National Association of Evangelicals, an organization that has polled Americans on current event issues, such as gun control. Direct media inquiries to Sarah Kropp Brown.

  • Karen Swanson

    Karen Swanson is the director of Wheaton College’s Institute for Prison Ministries.
    For media requests, contact the college’s media relations office.

  • Eric Toner

    Eric Toner is a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. His areas of interest include hospital preparedness and pandemic influenza. He authored a paper on the ethical allocation of the COVID-19 vaccine. Direct media inquiries to Margaret Miller.

  • Emily Wang

    Emily Wang is an associate professor at Yale School of Medicine. She studies health equity for vulnerable populations, including the incarcerated. She helped author a white paper on prioritizing vaccine distribution in prisons.

The coronavirus disrupts prison ministry

The COVID-19 outbreak also disrupted prison ministry. Corrections officials across the country limited or halted programming and visitors, creating challenges for those who serve people living behind bars. With access to correctional facilities restricted amid the pandemic, prison ministries have had to adapt, including turning to technology and the mail system to connect with the incarcerated.

Background information

Related research

Possible sources

  • James J. Ackerman

    James J. Ackerman is the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship, a Christian ministry that serves the incarcerated, the recently released and their families. Contact Ackerman through Prison Fellowship’s website.

  • Karen Clifton

    Karen Clifton is an executive committee member for Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition. She also is the executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network.

  • Matthew Perry

    Matthew Perry is an executive board member for Jewish Prisoner Services International. The organization’s mission is to help Jewish inmates, their families and those reentering society.

  • Dawud Walid

    Dawud Walid is the executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Walid’s organization is providing video of sermons and prayer services for distribution in state prions.

Early release and other COVID-19 concerns

American prisons and jails are hotbeds for the coronavirus. The New York Times reports at least 1,960 inmates and correctional officers have died and more than 433,000 people have been infected. Policymakers did little to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in these confined settings, according to a Prison Policy Initiative report. The conditions have led to some early releases, but calls for more continue.

Background information

Related research

Possible sources

  • Sharon Dolovich

    Sharon Dolovich is director of UCLA Prison Law & Policy Program and the COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project.

  • Martin Horn

    Martin Horn is a professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former corrections commissioner for New York City.

  • Jason Lyndon

    The Rev. Jason Lyndon is the pastor at Second Unitarian Church of Chicago. In March, Lyndon joined other faith leaders outside the Cook County Jail to pray for the early release of prisoners amid the pandemic.

  • Matthew Wynia

    Matthew Wynia is the director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado. His areas of interest include infectious diseases and public health.

Biden’s criminal justice platform

Biden brings a new slate of criminal justice positions and priorities to the White House. His campaign platform included establishing a grant program aimed at crime prevention, reducing incarcerations for drug use by diverting people to drug courts and treatment, investing in programs that fund community policing and ending cash bail.

Background information

Related research

Possible sources

  • Dominique DuBois Gilliard

    Dominique DuBois Gilliard is the director of Racial Righteousness and Reconciliation for the Evangelical Covenant Church. Gilliard also wrote Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores.

  • Vanita Gupta

    Vanita Gupta is the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Under the Obama administration, Gupta led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

  • Jonah Dov Pesner

    Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The center’s advocacy work includes criminal justice reform.

  • Keramet Reiter

    Keramet Reiter is an associate professor of criminology University of California Irvine. Reiter studies prisons, prisoner rights and the impact of prisons and policy.