Posted on July 10, 2020

‘Make Things Right’: Criminal Justice Officials Urge California to Release Prisoners Amid Covid-19 Surge

Abené Clayton, The Guardian, July 9, 2020

California lawmakers and top criminal justice officials joined organizers and families to urge the California governor, Gavin Newsom, to release thousands of people from state prisons, as several of the state’s facilities battle dramatic surges in coronavirus cases.

“We are in the middle of a humanitarian crisis that was created and wholly avoidable,” said the California assembly member Rob Bonta at a press conference in front of San Quentin state prison on Thursday.

“We need act with urgency fueled by compassion,” he added. “We missed the opportunity to prevent, so now we have to make things right.”

The officials, including the San Francisco district attorney, Chesa Boudin, and the Alameda public defender, Brendon Woods, are asking for the release of prisoners over 60 and people with less than a year left to serve. They also asked Newsom to tour San Quentin, the historic state prison that has seen the most positive cases.

Almost 1,500 people at San Quentin tested positive for the virus, and seven people have succumbed to complications from Covid-19. The facility has seen an exponential rise in coronavirus cases – up until the end of May it had not recorded a single confirmed case.

In a sign of an escalating crisis, officials reported in the past week that five people on the prison’s death row had died from complications related to Covid-19 . One of the men died in his cell, the other four in nearby hospitals.

The most recent losses of life bring the total number of Covid-19-related deaths in California state prisons to 31. Advocates, attorneys and public health experts say that these deaths were preventable, and that the state’s administration could prevent further deaths by releasing thousands of prisoners.

“I heard Governor Newsom say this is his top priority, but does he care?” said James King, an activist with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights who was formerly incarcerated. “People in there feel abandoned, as if no one cares that they’re left do die.”

The Newsom administration and California’s prison system (CDCR) have come under intense pressure over the spread of the coronavirus among prisoners, with lawmakers lambasting the official response.

In May, prison authorities transferred 187 people at high risk of contracting Covid-19 from the California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino to San Quentin and Corcoran state prisons. Before the transfer, San Quentin had zero positive cases and Corcoran had one. Within three weeks of the transfer, the prisons had nearly 500 and 150 cases respectively.

Then in mid-June prison authorities transferred more people from San Quentin to the California correctional center in Lassen county, where positive Covid-19 cases leapt from zero to 211 within a week.

“This is nothing short of the worst health screw-up in state history,” said the California assemblyman Marc Levine at Thursday’s press conference. “It’s not acceptable to treat the people in our care and custody so carelessly, with such destruction to their health.

“There must be accountability,” he added.

The corrections system’s top medical official was removed on 6 July to “meet current response needs while also working toward further delegation of medical care back to state control”, the former federal receiver J Clark Kelso said in a statement.

Federal judges, including Judge Jon S Tigar, who is one of three judges overseeing a years-long lawsuit to reduce the California prison population, have argued that the prison outbreaks can spell disaster in and outside of correctional facilities.

“The failure to act will cause an inevitable and unnecessary loss of life – not just in California’s incarcerated population, but also among CDCR staff and those beyond institutional walls who interact with staff or their households on a daily basis,” Tigar wrote in a 5 July order.

Newsom has said that he will be reviewing new cases and has a plan to bring the population in San Quentin down to 3,076 people. As of 10 June, San Quentin had 3,551 people and was at 115% capacity.

“The US is addicted to mass incarceration,” said Boudin, the San Francisco DA. “It didn’t take Covid to teach us that this is not safe. We’ve known for years that locking people up steals resources from our schools and hospitals. It forces kids to grow up without families.

“We have the tools, the data, the leadership and community support, but do we have the commitment and compassion to save lives?” he added.