Last Friday, Governor Gavin Newsom announced through his advisors that as many as 8000 people living in California’s 34 state prison facilities may be released early due to the COVID-19 crisis, starting on August 1.
On one hand, the new release initiative offers at least the possibility of bringing a loved one home to family members who, at the moment, are terrified daily that their father, mother, husband, wife, son, or daughter may get attacked by this vicious and unpredictable virus, which is now thriving in many of California’s lock-ups.
But in the opinion of those justice experts who have looked closely at the new release strategy, the governor’s plan should have been instituted months ago and, even now, it is too timid an effort.
“The catastrophic outbreaks within CA prisons require immediate action,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, regarding the governor’s plan, which she called, “a commendable step toward protecting the lives of people behind bars and the community. Yet, Krinsky was more critical after that. “The reduction of thousands of individuals over the next six months,” she wrote WLA in an email, while important and more than many states have done, will do little to halt the humanitarian crisis occurring today.”
And it has become a crisis of increasingly daunting proportions, a fact that seems mostly to have finally gotten the public’s attention due to the explosion of the virus at San Quentin, a California prison that is both historic, and located in upscale Marin County.
Professor Hadar Aviram of UC Hasting School of Law put the problem with the governor’s new strategy another way. (Aviram specializes in criminal justice policy, and writes regularly about California’s correctional system.)
“It feels like the Governor’s office and CDCR officials are trying to navigate the tricky terrain between curbing the pandemic and producing a plan that will not result in too much public backlash.”
They are doing so, said Abiram, “by trimming the prison population at the margins, rather than cutting a slice from the middle of the population cake and causing controversy.” But a much bigger slice of releases of those who are the most vulnerable is what is needed, according to Abiram.
And, of course, there are those incarcerated Californians for whom the strategy is entirely too late because they are already part of the list of prison residents who have died of the virus, a tally that, as of Monday afternoon, went up once again, from 34 to 35, after two more people died at San Quentin.
Furthermore, even if one doesn’t die, those who get the virus inside a CDCR facility have an unsettlingly good possibility of having their future health irrevocably harmed.
As WitnessLA has been hearing repeatedly from our own sources inside some of the state’s most virus affected prisons, for those who do test positive for COVID-19, often it is the post-COVID, organ-affecting damage, that for many — inside and out of prison — has become the greatest danger of an encounter with coronavirus.
Then, if post-COVID illness and/or damage, is combined with the often shockingly inadequate and unresponsive medical treatment offered to residents inside the most virus affected facilities, those post COVID dangers are multiplied many times over.
(WitnessLA will have much more on the issue of COVID-19 and post COVID-damage inside California’s prisons in an upcoming new series.)
It is also important to remember, said Krinsky, that given the racial disparities in incarceration, “prison decarceration is also a racial justice issue,” for both residents, and those who work inside the prisons.
“Black lives matter,” Krinsky said “and any governor who has recently affirmed their commitment to racial justice, yet neglected people behind bars with regard to COVID-19, must be held accountable and take action now to protect the health and safety of people who are incarcerated” and who work in these facilities.
“Being sentenced to prison should not be a death sentence.”
The gift of encouragement
Yet, 35 times, thus far, being sent by a judge to a California prison has been a death sentence for members of the state’s incarcerated population. And far more frequently, although the sentence has not been death, it may have been a sentence of grievous permanent damage.
To briefly illustrate the point, here’s a short essay, via Twitter, by James King, about a friend who recently died of COVID-19 in the virus catastrophe that is now San Quentin.
(King is the State Campaigner for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. He is also a writer and organizer, and has written numerous op-eds, several of them for WLA.)
When I first met Darrell, he told me, “I have the gift of encouragement,” & over the many years I knew him, I found this to be true. We were in multiple prisons together & more than a few times, he’d show up at my cell as I was going through a low pt to tell me…
“I believe in you, I love you, & I’m here if you need me.” He saw his role in our community as one who would always bring positivity & a warm smile & his timing seemed genuinely divine. This remained true even as he battled cancer the first time…
Darrell wasn’t well known on the yard, he didn’t seek attention, but those of us who knew him loved & valued him deeply. Last weekend he lost his battle with COVID. He was not what the CDCR labels him, a “violent offender” though was convicted of a violent crime. He was…
…a loving, compassionate man who will be deeply missed. He is who I think of when I hear the question, “is it safe to release ‘them.’” We are all worse off bc he never had the opportunity to share his gift of encouragement with the world outside the wall.
The bottom line is this: what the governor is doing is a start, however belated it may be. It is too late for Darrell, yet there are other men and women whose lives also matter, for whom the new release list might be life-saving, or health-preserving.
But much of the release plan will depend on, as Professor Aviram pointed out, case-by-case evaluations, “particularly for younger (under 30) people, and for people at medical high risk.”
And going over individual files is time-consuming.
So we need to get started — quickly.
Did we mention that, in the U.S., individuals in prison — either state or federal lock-ups — are 550 percent more likely to get Covid-19 and 300 percent more likely to die from it, than those on the outside, according to a study published last week in JAMA, authored by members of the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project, and Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Health Policy and Management.
The 8000 are a start, but more prison releases are needed.
And be sure to watch for WitnessLA’s new upcoming series about California’s Lethal Prisons.