Raymond M. Berger
Real Bullet Points

Releasing Prison Inmates in the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Proposal

Few of those who advocate early inmate release will suffer the consequences of this policy.

They are isolated and powerless. They are especially vulnerable to infection with the Corona virus. More so than others, they face catastrophic illness and death.

Two American rabbis who advocate for this group argue that the….”Book of Proverbs instructs us to ‘speak up for those who cannot speak….to raise our voices on behalf of the vulnerable and downtrodden.’”1

Who are these people? The impoverished? The undocumented?  Those who face political persecution? Those without families or access to healthcare? Disabled persons or those with mental illness?

No. They are incarcerated criminals.

The Mantra of Prisoner Release Advocates

Jails and prisons are a locus of infection. Crowded conditions, lack of staff and the impossibility of social isolation place prisoners at greater risk of infection than those in the community.

As COVID-19 infection races through American communities, law enforcement officials, community advocates, liberal journalists and government officials have been outspoken about the role of incarceration in worsening the pandemic. These prisoner advocates have pointed to a real problem. But the manner in which they portray the incarcerated is, in a word, odd. They have portrayed criminals as heroes.

This is evident in news reports and opinion pieces in many news outlets. For example, this is what a pair of rabbi authors had to say in an article published recently in the Times of Israel:

We have a moral imperative to care for this vulnerable population that can only imagine the freedom that recognizes their sacred worth as individuals and as human beings….

The individuals who make up America’s prison population are isolated, vulnerable, and voiceless…….

…..these men and women have built college programs, earned Bachelor’s degrees, founded religious communities, and raised up generations of transformational community leaders…..

…. [Union for Reform Judaism congregations] have heard the voices and seen the brilliant power of those incarcerated, those who have been left vulnerable and voiceless in the midst of a global crisis.

….[They] are us and we are them.2

It is nice that these rabbis care about inmates. But why the breathless tone of admiration for these criminals? Have these inmates really “….raised up generations of transformational community leaders?”

I can only guess that these rabbis have adopted the tactics of the current generation of “woke” progressives: Shout your heartfelt support for the “oppressed” as a form of virtue signaling. They are saying, “See how good I am? I even care about criminals!”

This display of virtue isn’t virtue at all, but rather, narcissism.


Progressives have suggested—-and at times implemented—-a variety of strategies to “bring justice” to this “vulnerable population” of inmates. These include: declining to refer violators for prosecution so as to diminish jail crowding; releasing inmates near the end of their sentence; releasing those who have accumulated credits for good behavior or who have already served many years; releasing those serving time solely for parole violations; and, as a compassionate policy, releasing inmates with serious illness.

Advocates argue that inmate releases protect not only inmates, but also prison personnel and their families. Thus, they help to “flatten the curve” of community infection.

One proposal is to release older prisoners. The argument is that these inmates are most likely to become severely ill or die from Corona virus infection, given the more serious illness experienced by infected seniors. To inmate advocates, this is an unjust outcome because it depends, not on the inmate’s actions, but simply on his age.

But older prisoners are generally those who have served long sentences. And those long sentences mean that these criminals have committed serious felonies, in many cases, murder. The advocates’ assurances that these men are not a danger to the community are suspect. For one thing, recidivism rates for convicted felons are notoriously high. On the other hand, older inmates are less likely than younger ones to commit new crimes.

Can advocates really be assured that released inmates are not a threat to the public?

Even in good economic times, released felons face daunting challenges in finding employment. They generally have little education and few skills beyond their criminal occupations. Even where employers are barred from asking job applicants about prior criminal records, long periods of unemployment will be a tip-off to every prospective employer that these men have served time.

To make employment an even more daunting challenge, inmates being released today are being discharged into the worst economy since the Great Depression. There are no or few jobs for millions of workers, even those with clean records.

And what happens to released inmates who are unable to find a job in the legal economy? By necessity they return to the only “occupation” many of them have known, that is, to criminal activity.

Does it make sense to release inmates to communities precisely at a time when those communities are already in crisis?

Few of those who advocate early inmate release will suffer the consequences of this policy. They have jobs that allow them to live in safe neighborhoods where released felons will not live. They won’t be the future crime victims of newly released inmates. Poor people and minorities will.


Finally, who gets to decide about release programs? The deciders will be politicians, community advocates, and liberal intellectuals.

Missing in all the arguments are the voices of the victims of released criminals.

I did not find a single article about inmate release that mentioned past or future victims of those to be released. Nor have I heard any early release advocate make mention of victims and their loved ones.

Have early release advocates extended their compassion for criminals to their victims, who routinely suffer a lifetime of physical pain and emotional suffering? And what of family members of those who have died at the hands of criminals? There will be no release from their suffering.

My Challenge to Early Release Advocates

I don’t want to rain on the parade of progressive release advocates. So I have an idea for them.

There is a way to release felons and at the same time, enhance their chances of success and retain some measure of protection for the communities that will house them

I suggest that the good rabbis of the Union for Reform Judaism—-and all other release advocates—-put their money where their virtue signaling currently resides. They should open their wallets and contribute to a Support and Compensation Fund.

This fund would be used to pay the rent and groceries for newly released felons, to aid in their transition to the community. This would enable released felons to avoid a return to criminal careers. The fund could further be used to subsidize employment of those released, as a way to encourage employers to offer them jobs.

One of the most important features of the fund would be victim compensation. Any member of the public who is injured in the course of a crime committed by a released felon could apply for compensation to cover the costs of property restitution, legal bills, medical care and counseling.

Release advocates have already told us they have opened their hearts. Will they be willing to open their wallets as well?


  1. Jacobs, R. and Haber, H. Pandemic in the Petri Dish that is Prison [Blog]. Times of Israel. April 24, 2020. Retrieved April 25, 2020 from:

  1. Ibid.
About the Author
The author is a life-long Zionist and advocate for Israel. He believes that a strong Jewish state is invaluable, not only to Jews, but to the world-wide cause of democracy and human rights. Dr. Berger earned a PhD in Social Welfare from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has twenty-seven years of teaching experience. He has authored and co-authored three books as well as over 45 professional journal articles and book chapters. His parents were Holocaust survivors.
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