God values the lives of Canadian inmates

This Article first appeared in the Marathon Mercury, January 2021.

With all the recent chaos in the USA it was easy to miss a very important conversation in Canadian politics that took place last week, directly affecting our families here on the North Shore.

Last Wednesday, the Thunder Bay District Health Unit declared outbreaks of COVID-19 at both the Thunder Bay District Jail and the Thunder Bay Correctional Centre. Many of our families have loved ones who are connected to these two institutions as either inmates or staff. Alongside this announcement came backlash from Conservatives to Canada’s vaccine roll-out plan, especially to the planned vaccination of 600 inmates as quickly as possible.

Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole tweeted on Jan. 5, “Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front line health worker.”

As I watched this conversation play out, I reflected on how differently we value the lives of our siblings who’ve had dealings with the judicial system. How quickly we exclude them from the category of “vulnerable Canadians”. We claim that our corrections facilities exist to rehabilitate offenders for eventual re-entry into our communities, but this dangerous attitude would have us turn our system of justice into a death sentence.

We have all watched with great alarm how COVID-19 has spread in our long-term care institutions, and mourned the resulting deaths. But our media coverage and our public outcry has been disturbingly silent when it comes to our jails and prisons. These facilities are experiencing the same devastating effects of COVID-19 that our nursing homes are.

Even Christians conveniently forget Jesus’ call to care for those who are imprisoned. It is so much easier to focus on the sick, the poor, and the lonely. Yet, Jesus challenges his followers in Matthew, demanding why they did not come and visit him when he was imprisoned. They reply, “And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” He replies, ”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.” (Matt. 25:39-40 NRSV)

Erin O’Toole may not value the lives of our brothers, sisters and siblings who are awaiting trial or serving a sentence, but Jesus does. Jesus calls these folks family. His Gospel calls us to value these community members even above ourselves, putting the last first in the kin-dom of God. I am also desperate to be vaccinated. To have that weight lifted from my shoulders. I too have loved ones I worry about, older relatives I am waiting to hear have finally gotten their shots. But, Jesus calls me to pause and consider, to remember all of those who are most vulnerable, even those relegated to ‘last place’ in our society. Inmates, the homeless, Northern communities, and yes, our seniors living in institutions. All of these people are members of Jesus’ family. All of these people are vulnerable, and should take priority for us.

When I see the images of folks getting vaccinated in the news, I think back to this passage from Matthew and hear Jesus speaking in a new voice: “Truly I tell you, just as you vaccinated one of the least of these who are members of my family, you vaccinated me”. May God have mercy on these siblings of ours as they wait for that life-giving injection, and us as we wait with them.

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