Archives for August 2020
As Coronavirus deaths escalate in California’s prisons, advocates say medical parole could help stem the pandemic.
With a third of the population at San Quentin State Prison infected, the chronically ill and the elderly are scared that without intervention they could be next. [Note: This article was written in June. By mid-July, half the population of SQ was infected, by mid-August, more than 20 had died.]
Two more San Quentin State Prison inmates died of what appears to be complications related to COVID-19 over the weekend, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), heightening fears that the prison’s outbreak is spinning out of control. Scott Thomas Erskine, 57, and Manuel Machado Alvarez, 59, are the 23rd and 24th COVID-19-related deaths of incarcerated people in California’s prison system. San Quentin alone currently has 1,379 people who have tested positive for COVID-19— over a third of the prison’s population.
“I’m scared as hell because of coronavirus,” said Willie Mixon, who is a 70-year-old African-American incarcerated at San Quentin. “Who do you think would be the first person knocked off? Not a moment goes by that I don’t think about that.”
Mixon uses a wheelchair and is currently on dialysis for his kidney failure. For treatment, he has a stent placed in his left arm. Three days a week he must go through two to three hours of blood transfusions to stay alive.
“When I first started the dialysis, it wasn’t so bad. After it, I could get up and talk,” Mixon said. “Now it feels like someone’s pushing on my chest, like I’m taking off in a jet. I lose my voice and I’m tired. I can’t explain the tiredness—it’s draining. I get fuzzy.”
A variety of factors make incarcerated people like Mixon high-risk during a deadly pandemic. Prisons are notoriously overcrowded (in some cases with beds placed just three feet apart) which can make maintaining the recommended six feet of distancing next to impossible. An estimated 40 percent of incarcerated Americans report having a chronic condition, many of which (including chronic kidney disease) make them high-risk for developing severe complications from COVID-19. The availability of face masks and other protective gear has been extremely limited, resulting in the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California to file a statewide lawsuit in May.
In response, a mix of prosecutors, doctors, and prisoner rights advocates have called for immediate or expedited release of people like Mixon who have serious chronic health conditions. This move, they argue, could save lives by reducing overcrowding and getting the most vulnerable into safer conditions. It’s a prospect that makes Mixon perk up.
“What can I do, except stay home, babysit my grandkids and get them to teach me how to use the computer?” Mixon said of the prospect of an early release. “My daughter would be able to take my social security and take care of me.”
In California, CDCR announced in June that those convicted of nonviolent offenses who had less than 180 days on their sentence were eligible for supervised release and at the end of March, 3,500 people were let out on parole a few days or weeks early.
Mixon is serving a life sentence for drug possession under California’s Three Strikes Law. Violent offenses, dating back to 1978, disqualify him from early release from previously passed Three Strikes reform measures.
“Seeing Mixon struggle is hard. But he always bounces back and never complains,” said Ron Ehde, who works for the Inmate Disability Assistant Program (IDAP) and has been incarcerated 23 years. He’s doing a 50-year-to-life sentence under California’s Three Strike Law for second-degree robbery. “Since I’ve been assisting him, he’s become like ‘family.'”
In 2014, California expanded medical parole in an attempt to reduce prison crowding. This allows medical staff to assess medically incapacitated prisoners for how much help they require with things like mobility in bed, using the bathroom, and eating. If they’re not deemed to pose an “unreasonable risk to public safety,” this could potentially make them eligible for medical parole.
While prison medical officials should assess everyone who may be eligible, a prison’s family or other advocate can request that they’re evaluated for medical parole. If a parolee’s condition improves or if they’re deemed a threat to public safety, their parole can be revoked.
No prison official has discussed the possibility of medical parole with Mixon.
Despite what many advocates say is a common-sense response to a growing crisis, the use of medical parole during the pandemic has been limited.
“Expanded Medical Parole might not be as productive an avenue for releases as it should be,” said Keith Wattley, the Founding Executive Director of Uncommon Law which provides health and legal counseling to incarcerated people. “It requires medical staff at a prison to issue a report finding a person to be totally medically incapacitated, after which a referral is made to the parole board, which might schedule a hearing months later to consider whether the incapacitated person could safely be transferred to a skilled nursing facility in the community. This process is slow and depends on prison medical staff, parole board staff, and community facilities.”
Some local jails have been proactive, including Alabama’s Mobile Metro Jail, which in April released almost a third of those incarcerated, some because they had underlying medical issues. About 100 people were released from Boulder County Jail in Colorado, including some of those who had pre-existing medical conditions.
In comparison to local jails, prisons like San Quentin “are releasing almost no one,” according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that researches mass incarceration, for medical issues or otherwise.
In Louisiana, which has the highest incarceration rate in the country, a review panel was created to review up to 1,100 people for temporary release but that panel was suspended in June after less than 600 cases were reviewed. Just 63 people were released.
Like many incarcerated people, Mixon’s medical issues have plagued him for years and have gotten worse during his time at San Quentin. People often age prematurely when in detention, experiencing health problems associated with much older individuals.
Mixon noticed serious swelling below his knees around 2018. He sought medical attention but didn’t get any answers about what was wrong.
“Then one day everything from my knees down blew up, like elephant feet. A couple weeks later, while using the toilet, I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t wipe or anything. I fell on the floor and couldn’t get up.”
Mixon said he was so weak that he couldn’t yell loud enough to call for help. He tapped on the cell wall to get the attention of his neighbor, who called, “Man down!”
A correctional officer arrived and asked him to step out of the cell, but Mixon couldn’t get to his feet. The CO radioed for assistance before coming inside the cell to turn on the light. Mixon told the COs that he didn’t feel bad, but couldn’t stand. Three COs tried to pick him up, but couldn’t get a good grip—his body was too bloated. They pulled him out by his arms and legs.
“I couldn’t even raise my head to see what was going on,” Mixon said. “They put me in a wheelchair and took me to TTA [San Quentin triage].”
Mixon desperately wanted to see himself and kept asking for a mirror. When he got one, seeing his swollen body brought him to tears.
He was taken to Marin General Hospital (outside of San Quentin) and treated for kidney failure before he was returned to San Quentin’s hospital for continued treatment.
“At first, I was still big and couldn’t move on my own. The nurses had to come every few hours to turn me over,” Mixon said.
The initial recovery took about two months during which he experienced mental and physical fatigue and weight loss as a result of the dialysis.
“When I got back to North Block, I was very small. The biggest thing on me was my head,” Mixon said.
“It’s crazy that this is what it has come to: We’re keeping people in prison until they are so medically disabled that they can’t even take care of themselves. And even then we’re using a months-long, resource heavy process just to transfer their care to a facility in the community,” said Wattley. “This is a miserable substitute for the Governor and prison leadership releasing the thousands necessary to keep people safe.”
Mixon is scheduled to appear before the parole board next year but has struggled to do the preparation his parole commissioners have asked of him.
“Everything went downhill because of the high-potent psych meds. I haven’t adjusted to them. They mess me up. Plus, I’m in and out of the hospital,” said Mixon.
Mixon’s memories of his family and the hope of spending time with them again is part of what keeps him going. He smiles when he recalls the day his daughter was born.
“When I complained to my mother that I wanted a boy, she told me ‘Jesus blessed you with what you need.'”
Watani Stiner was interviewed by his former creative writing teacher, Zoe Mullery, on July 22, 2020, regarding the outbreak of Coronavirus at San Quentin. Watani paroled from San Quentin in January 2015 after serving 26 years (5 from 1969-1974, when he escaped; 21 more from 1994-2015 after he voluntarily returned from being a fugitive in South America, in order to assist his children to be able to come to the U.S.)
ZOE: Watani, you were telling me that you were having a reaction to some things you have heard well-meaning family members and other people say about the situation in San Quentin. Can you tell me what you were feeling about the questions they were asking you?
WATANI: What’s going on inside San Quentin and the situation with COVID-19 that’s devastating that place—for someone who was inside for 21 straight years, that brings up a whole lot of feelings inside of me. Even though I’m out of San Quentin now, the relationships with people I grew to love and who I worked with for 21 years are very much alive. When people talk about what’s going on inside San Quentin now it’s always framed like: “Aren’t you grateful you’re not in prison anymore?” It’s not that simple. I have deep relationships that were formed over many years of incarceration. And now I’m out. And it’s as if I’m supposed to feel like I won the lottery and now I’m good, and those who are left behind are the losers, the unfortunate ones. It’s not meant to be insensitive, but there’s just a whole bunch of reactions inside of me when I hear that. Because I know the thoughts, the struggles, of those still inside, and it’s impossible for me to disconnect myself from that. It’s hard for me to say ME, it’s still WE.
There are a lot of young men still inside who should have been out a long time ago. Some even made it almost all the way to the finish line when COVID-19 struck and they’re still in there, still trapped. And then someone says, “Well, at least you’re out!” If I were still inside and someone before me got out, and that statement was said to them, I would hope that they wouldn’t forget me. I’d be happy they’re out, but I wouldn’t want to be forgotten.
I had family members who were there for me, who agonized over my plight and followed every twist and turn of my circumstances, and those still inside also have family members, brothers, sisters, mothers and daughters and they also want their loved ones out of that deadly situation. I can’t talk about it without thinking “By the grace of God, there I go.” That sits kind of hard for me.
ZOE: I’ve heard many people say when they get out of prison how bittersweet it is to leave people behind. It seems like prison creates this impossible situation because there’s this wall between relationships. When you’re in prison you’ve got a wall to the outside, and when you’re out you’ve got a wall to the inside. Either way you’re locked out of access to people you care about.
WATANI: I remember the first time I had this feeling; it was really strong. It was the first time I went back inside San Quentin after being out for less than a year. I met many of the people I knew, we hugged each other, we laughed and made jokes and they were glad I was out. But when I left, having to leave them there, knowing that not long before I was in the same prison uniform…I would have turned to the left to go back to my cell and the outside guests would turn to the right toward the door outside. And now I was turning right. That was a heavy, heavy feeling.
I have this nagging anxiety of wanting to know what I can do. Can I do more? Anger arises and I want to just do something radical because I know it’s wrong how much they’re suffering. I know their stories—individually and collectively. It’s one thing to know the newspaper clippings about cookie cutter crimes and form a general opinion, a conclusion. But it’s another thing when you really get to know a person and you learn about them through letters to their mothers, their wives, their sisters and brothers. And they tell you things about their lives, what they’ve been through and how they are coming out on the other end. Such a strong bond is formed.
It’s hard to turn away from that and just be glad you survived and got out. Even at the beginning, after being released, I had this turmoil inside of me when I would hear some social justice advocates dissect the prison system. They champion or cheerlead for one segment or another and support a particular group of prisoners. But the relationships and stories of people I know and have grown close to don’t fit in such neat boxes.
I’m haunted by the ricocheting sounds of “Man Down!” “Man Down!” Those shouts of compassion that take place when someone in their cell needs urgent medical attention. No regard for race, color or creed. I hear that now “Man Down!” is being shouted multiple times a day, all over the prison. How can I just be satisfied that it’s not me in there? I get calls from worried wives and mothers asking me if I know what can be done to help their loved ones who may now be facing a death sentence. I have no satisfying answers for them. This is where I am with this terrible situation.
It’s one thing to have a sense of helplessness out here, but they have a hundred times more helplessness while confined in there.
ZOE: Helplessness plus rage.
WATANI: Yeah, that’s exactly what it is—or maybe rage first then helplessness. I also think about the impact of this epidemic not just from the prisoners’ perspective, but there are also prison guards who have to work within the confines of the prison structure, the caring ones who have not surrendered their humanity. They also have families. Lt. Sam Robinson comes to mind. He had shared stories about his wife and children. His family must be as concerned for him as any prisoner’s family is for them. If we cannot see the humanity in either prisoner or guard, perhaps we are able to see our reflection in the mirror of family.
So, when I hear people say they are glad I’m not in prison during this pandemic, I know it’s because their love and concern for me are genuine. I know how much they would have worried about me. They would have wanted others to care, to do something. And now I am on the outside. How I can convey help and hope?
ZOE: Your words matter, and I hope that some of them get to read these words and know that they are not forgotten.
WATANI: I’m considered an OG and there’s a number of young men I’ve actually raised in prison. I care about them like family, and I know their struggles and their victories. They’re so much more than the crime written in their files. When I see someone being released from prison, I’m overjoyed that one more person has an opportunity to change the world. And now this pandemic is ravaging through San Quentin, through a place that is full of people I care about. You just told me about Gary finally being released. He should have been out a long time ago. And so many others. Juan and Bonaru, Kevin and Malik… so many who should have been home years ago. It’s a tragedy. I know I can’t do much to affect this punitive web called criminal justice, yet I feel I have to do something.
I want you all to know you have not been forgotten.
The flu, a different coronavirus, will be back this winter, as usual, starting in November and getting worse December and January. As the early symptoms of COVID-19 (also a coronavirus) and the flu are very similar, the medical establishment recommends that everyone gets a flu shot.
“This winter, hospitals could well be in great demand so it makes sense that if we can minimize influenza as much as we can we’ll have more reserved healthcare capacity to look after patients who might be suffering from COVID-19,” said Dr. John Campbell.
Further, the flu shot, designed to give you immunity against the flu, may give you increased immunity—although not total—against the worst cases of COVID-19.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health (NIH paper), “It might be possible also that individuals who received prior flu vaccination might show mild severity of COVID-19 because of flu-induced bystander effect of the generated immune responses, which itself might cross-react against SARS-CoV-2 [COVID-19].”
According to The Dual Epidemics of COVID-19 and Influenza (the JAMA report), in the 2018-2019 flu session, the U.S. had 35.5 million influenza cases, 490,600 hospitalizations, and 34,200 deaths related to influenza.
As for the good news, the flu vaccination for 2018-19 prevented 4.4 million cases of influenza, 58,000 hospitalizations, and 3,500 deaths in the U.S. This is with only about 50% of residents getting the flu shot, according to the JAMA report.
Of course, COVID-19 is a different respiratory viral infection. Still, as to the flu, the relative risk in this study was 4.4. In other words, the people in the vaccination group were 4.4 times more likely to avoid the flu compared with people who did not take the flu shot.
So it is still very important that everyone gets a flu shot. Make sure that all your family members do so. That way even if you later get COVID-19, the hospital won’t be as full of influenza patients.
This was going to be the year that Dion DeMerrill would fully explain to his sons why he is in prison. The virus lockdown made that unlikely.
DeMerrill looks forward every year to this one chance to see his kids, when he and other incarcerated men and women link up with their kids, thanks to the Get On The Bus program.
Get on the Bus brings children and their caregivers from throughout the state of California to visit their mothers and fathers in prison.
But the COVID-19 pandemic forced all programs in state prisons to be suspended, including the Get on The Bus program that allowed him to visit with his kids.
He’s a father of three — an 18-year-old daughter, D’oni, who is in college, and two boys, 13-year-old Dion Jr. and 9-year-old Dr’Lon.
With numerous parents serving time in California prisons, their children are in the homes of relatives or subject to foster care.
According to research by the family reunification organization, Get on the Bus (GOTB), the negative outcomes of children with incarcerated parents include decreased mental health, behavioral and educational challenges, as well as higher rates of being incarcerated themselves.
“Before, when they asked when I was coming home, I told them I was in Texas,” DeMerrill said. “But my oldest son kept asking questions, so I told him what happened. A few weeks before Get on the Bus last year, my youngest son was told I am in prison. He still doesn’t know why. This year, I wanted to tell him the whole story.”
DeMerrill, 43, became an incarcerated parent when he was sentenced in 2013 to 16 years in state prison for involuntary manslaughter.
“The crime happened because of a lack of communications and respect,” said DeMerrill, who had never been in trouble with the law before. “I just happened to be in the middle of something.”
DeMerrill, the fourth child of five — and the only boy — added, “I was raised by my mother — a single parent. I grew up in West Oakland, California. My mother did her best with us. It was hard to raise a boy alone. She did not do just a good job, but a great job.”
When he was 21, DeMerrill moved out on his own, but kept in close contact with his mother and sisters.
“When this accident happened, they all came together to help me,” he said. “They are still supportive to me. If I need anything, they are right there for me. We were taught to always help each other when in need.”
DeMerrill came to San Quentin State Prison in 2017.
Talking to his kids on the phone helps him get by, he said. He also likes to relax by playing board games, exercising, watching the news and writing letters.
Since arriving at San Quentin, he’s been attending self-help groups. He’s graduated from the violence prevention programs No More Tears and Non-Violent Communications and is currently enrolled in the Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP) program.
Two years ago, another prisoner told DeMerrill about GOTB.
“I filled out the application because my daughter just turned 18, so she was able to bring my two boys,” DeMerrill said.
An annual event, Get on the Bus offers free transportation for the children and their caregivers to the prison, provides travel bags for the children, comfort bags for the caregivers, a photo of each child with his or her parent, and meals for the day (breakfast, snacks on the bus, a special lunch at the prison with their parent and dinner on the way home), all at no cost to the children’s family. On the bus trip home, following a four-hour visit, each child receives a teddy bear with a letter from their parent and post-event counseling.
“At that time, I hadn’t touched my kids since December 2013 and I hadn’t seen them since December 2014. I was only able to call them once a week.
“Last year was full of tears,” he recounted. “When my kids saw me, they stared at me because they hadn’t seen me in so long. My youngest son was in Pampers when I came to prison and I missed his second birthday.” During the visit, they played board games and he gave his sons “horsey back rides.”
“I was too old for that,” DeMerrill said. “I thanked the lady who was responsible for bringing my kids.”
His daughter, D’oni, said last year was about “holding, touching, and hugging our dad — that’s the main thing.” Her brothers agreed.
DeMerril said he had wanted to use this year’s GOTB visit to teach his sons about prison — “that this is a place where you never want to come” — but the pandemic has kept them apart.
For D’oni too, this hit hard. She said the program is important because it’s the only time she and her brothers get to see their father.
She said she “hates COVID-19 because so many lives are being taken and everybody can’t go outside like how it used to be. I cope with it by spending quality time with my family.” But her dad is just too far.
“It’s too expensive for a plane ticket,” D’oni said. “So we rely on the Get on the Bus to see him. My favorite memory was being able to hug him, so being able to see him in 2019 was one of the best days of the whole year. I miss our trips together. They used to be so fun.”
DeMerrill’s 13-year-old, Dion Jr., said that COVID-19 is “kind of scary, because it’s deadly and we can’t go to school.” Like his sister, he said it’s hard to miss out on the only opportunity to see his dad. Getting the chance to spend time and play games with him were his best memories from last year.
Dr’lon said he’s coping with COVID-19 by playing video games with his older brother. He also said his favorite memories from 2019 were being with his dad on their Father’s Day visit.
“He always makes me laugh,” Dr’lon said. “I miss him playing with me.”
All but nine of California’s 35 prisons house more people than the facility was designed to hold.
The following article by Juan Haines, Senior Editor of the San Quentin News and Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg is reprinted by the permission of The Appeal, which produces original journalism on how policy, politics, and the legal system impact America’s most vulnerable people.
The conditions for the novel coronavirus to spread rapidly have long been in place at San Quentin State Prison. Like much of California’s prison system, it has been dangerously overcrowded.
As of May 30, no prisoners at San Quentin had tested positive for COVID-19. That day, 121 people were transferred there from a facility with a deadly outbreak. On May 31, California’s department of corrections reported the first confirmed case of a prisoner with COVID-19 at the prison—and within weeks, hundreds were infected.
As of July 20, there have been 2,089 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among prisoners at San Quentin, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). About 1,100 people have recovered.
Thirteen people incarcerated at the prison have died from complications arising from COVID-19, according to the CDCR; six were serving a death sentence. Last year, Governor Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions and ordered the execution chamber closed. California has not carried out an execution since 2006.
The cause of death for the remaining nine is pending, according to CDCR’s website. Of those nine, three people were found unresponsive in their single cells—on March 28, June 24, and July 1. The remaining six died between July 3 and July 20 of apparent complications from COVID-19, according to the CDCR; all six were hospitalized at the time of their death.
Some who test positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone who tests positive are isolated in administrative segregation housing units, according to the CDCR. Administrative segregation is generally considered to be a euphemism for solitary confinement.
“Those being placed into segregated housing due to COVID-19 are not being moved for punitive reasons, they are moved in order to prevent further spread of the COVID-19 virus in the affected unit,” reads the CDCR website. “Patients on isolation are screened twice a day by health care staff.”
When asked for the number of people in administrative segregation because of COVID-19, CDCR spokesperson Jeffrey Callison, emailed The Appeal, “We don’t share numbers in quarantine or isolation.”
As early as March, public health experts warned of an impending crisis facing the state’s overcrowded prisons. (The Justice Collaborative organized a letter by public health experts to urge the governor to release individuals who are over 60 or medically vulnerable, and identified as low-risk or have five years or less left on their sentences. The Appeal is an editorially independent project of The Justice Collaborative.)
“The crowded conditions make it difficult, if not impossible, for the prison system to spread people out,” said Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office. “They’re living in a place which makes contagion very probable.”
The Prison Law Office, along with other attorneys, filed an emergency motion in March, asking the federal district court to order the CDCR to release to parole or post-release community supervision prisoners within a year of their parole date who were either serving time for a nonviolent offense or identified as low risk by the CDCR’s risk assessment tool. Even before the pandemic, some prisons had too few on-site medical beds to meet patients’ needs, the attorneys wrote. A pandemic, they cautioned, would be catastrophic. The court denied their motion.
Throughout the pandemic, the prisons have remained overcrowded even though the department of corrections has reduced the state prison population by about 10,000 people since March. All but nine of California’s 35 prisons house more people than they were designed to hold. For the prisons to operate at about 100 percent capacity, the population would have to be reduced by more than 16,000 people. Without mass releases, few options remain to keep prisoners safe.
To stem transmissions, San Quentin’s population must be reduced by 50 percent, according to a report released in June by the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health and Amend, a prison reform organization. As of July 15, the prison housed 3,362 people, at about 109 percent of its capacity. At the beginning of this month, David Sears, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the University of California-San Francisco, spoke to state legislators as a representative of Amend.
“California prisons are already over 100 percent capacity,” he testified. “We must depopulate all of our prisons immediately if we are to have any hope of avoiding what has happened at San Quentin at California’s other facilities.”
After public outcry about the rising infection and death rates, the state’s department of corrections announced on July 10 that up to an estimated 8,000 prisoners could be eligible for release by the end of August. As part of this effort, the CDCR will grant a positive programming credit to prisoners, which would reduce a sentence by 12 weeks. Those who committed a “serious rules violation” between March 1 and July 5 of this year are not eligible for the credit. Serious rules violations include murder, rape, and assault, as well as possession of a cellphone and “gang activity,” according to the CDCR’s announcement.
The department also plans to release prisoners based on a number of criteria, such as type of offense, medical vulnerabilities, and time left to serve.
For those incarcerated at prisons with “large populations of high-risk patients,” people will be considered for release if they have a year or less to serve, are not serving time for a violent crime, have no current or prior sentence that requires them to register as a sex offender, and are not at a high risk of violence, according to the department.
Prisoners who are 30 and over and meet these criteria are “immediately eligible for release,” according to the CDCR. Those who are 29 and younger, will be reviewed case by case. These groups will be screened on a rolling basis until the department “determines such releases are no longer necessary.”
People who are identified as “high-risk medical,” such as those who are over 65 and have chronic conditions, are eligible for release, as long as they are not serving a life without the possibility of parole or death sentence, and are not identified as “high-risk sex offenders,” according to the CDCR.
The department is also “reviewing potential release protocols for incarcerated persons who are in hospice or pregnant,” according to the department’s announcement. “Everybody will be reviewed based on both their current health risk and risk to public safety.” CDCR spokesperson Dana Simas confirmed to The Appeal that the review will include those sentenced to death or life without the possibility of parole.
The department will be “expediting the release” of those who are still incarcerated despite being approved for parole by the Board of Parole Hearings and the governor. As of July 15, there were 436 people who were incarcerated after having received a grant of parole, according to the CDCR.
The department of corrections’ announcement featured a number of statements from local advocacy groups, praising the release plan. “We applaud the Governor for working on two crucial fronts: getting the most vulnerable people out of harm’s way and stemming the spread of COVID-19 inside prisons and neighboring communities,” said Anne Irwin, director of Smart Justice California.
But other experts condemned it as dangerously inadequate.
The type of crime should not disqualify people for release, as there is no correlation between offense and risk to public safety, said Hadar Aviram, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. “It’s too little, it’s too late, it’s too reactive, and it’s too restrictive,” she said of the CDCR’s plan.
Those who are over 50 should be prioritized for release, as research shows people typically age out of committing crime, she said. More than 30,000 people age 50 and older were incarcerated as of December 31, 2017, the most recently available CDCR data. According to the same report, almost half of the state’s prisoners—over 60,000—were identified as low-risk to reoffend.
“I’m seeing the pattern of trying to carve out of the prison population,” Aviram said, “these slivers of people that they think are going to be non-controversial and hoping that if they have this sliver and this sliver and this sliver, overall the numbers are going to add up. The numbers are not going to add up. The number is 8,000. It’s not enough.”
Adnan Khan, executive director of Restore Justice, agrees that the plan fails to protect the people incarcerated inside the state’s prisons. The day before the plan was announced, he stood outside San Quentin at a press conference with the Stop San Quentin Outbreak coalition.
“This is not a COVID response. COVID responses are urgent and they’re much more drastic,” he said. “This is more of a political response to the pressure versus a COVID response for health.”
In 2003, Khan, then 18 years old and homeless, committed a robbery with an accomplice. He had agreed to grab the victim’s marijuana, believing that no weapons were going to be used. But during the crime the getaway driver stabbed the victim, killing him.
Under the felony murder rule, Khan was held responsible for the murder, and sentenced to 25 years to life. Last year, he went before Judge Laurel Brady who resentenced Khan, then 34, to three years, thanks to a change in California’s felony murder statute.
“In a matter of three minutes I went from being a violent, crazy criminal offender, whatever those derogatory terms are,” said Khan. “Three minutes later, I’m not even on parole or probation. I’m safe for society.”
Khan was incarcerated at San Quentin for four years. At least two people he served time with their died from COVID-19, he said.
“I’m doing this interview with a heavy heart and really frustrated,” he said. “It’s like, who’s next? Which one of our friends is next?”
The crisis facing California prisoners has been years in the making. Between 1980 and 2006, the state’s prison population increased by 514 percent, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, in part because of harsh sentencing laws. In 1994, California enacted the three strikes law, which mandated at least a 25 to life sentence for any third felony.
As the prison population increased, conditions inside deteriorated.
In 1990, a class action lawsuit, Coleman v. Brown, alleged that prisoners with severe mental illness were denied adequate mental healthcare. The federal court agreed and appointed a special master to monitor reforms. In 2007, he reported that the declining quality of care was due to overcrowding.
Then in 2001, the Prison Law Office filed a class action suit, Plata v. Brown, alleging that prisoners with serious medical issues were also denied adequate care. About four years later, the court appointed a receiver to oversee changes to the medical system. In 2008, he reported that overcrowding was contributing to dangerously inadequate medical care and the spread of infectious diseases.
The cases were consolidated before a three-judge panel and, in 2009, the panel ordered the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity within two years. Individual prisons could go beyond that, as long as other prisons balanced them out.
“Until the problem of overcrowding is overcome it will be impossible to provide constitutionally compliant care to California’s prison population,” the judges wrote.
The state appealed and, in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that overcrowding in California’s prison system violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. “Prisoners are crammed into spaces neither designed nor intended to house inmates,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority. “As many as 200 prisoners may live in a gymnasium, monitored by as few as two or three correctional officers.”
Prisoners at San Quentin have had to struggle with the ominous threat of infection in an increasingly distressing environment. They can only shower every three days, unless they’ve been identified as critical workers who are permitted to shower after their shift, according to a page on the CDCR website that details actions the department is taking to address the outbreak at San Quentin.
On July 14, the CDCR suspended phone calls in shared spaces, according to CDCR spokesperson Callison. When asked if there is any phone access that is not in communal spaces, Callison emailed The Appeal that there is not. “If it is a legal call, requested by the attorney or the court, it is facilitated in a counselor’s office on a non-recorded phone,” he wrote.
The CDCR has also attempted to stem transmission by increasing social distancing among prisoners. As the outbreak at San Quentin became one of the largest in the country, tents to house prisoners went up on the baseball field outside.
In the spring, the gym was turned into housing, according to the CDCR. In Amend’s report, the authors warned that “there is little to no ventilation” inside the San Quentin gym. The conditions, they wrote, were creating a “high-risk for a catastrophic super spreader event.”
On April 11, North Block had just finished serving breakfast to the more than 750 prisoners there. “I need seven volunteers to work in the gym,” a correctional officer asked over the block’s public address system.
The day before, a flatbed truck drove up to the gym. The truck’s sideboards were topped with battleship-gray 3-inch twin-size mattresses that most California prisoners sleep on.
Six prisoners went to the gym to set up 112 cots, in two rows of four with 30 inches between beds on the sides, and 12 inches head to head. Six feet separated 14 pods of eight beds, each. Several men continued the work over the next two days. For their labor, the set-up crew earned extra lunches and cleaning supplies.
Before the pandemic, the gym’s morning hours were filled with prisoners taking rehabilitative classes. At night, they watched TV, and played basketball, table tennis, card games, role-playing games, and chess. There were guitars and keyboards, haircuts being given, and guys sitting at stainless steel tables studying parole plans—what to do on the other side of the wall.
Those sleeping in the gym said they did not feel they could keep an adequate distance from one another. De’Jon Tamani Joy said when he and other prisoners got to the gym, they were promised there would be partitions between the beds.
“No partitions have been made available, nor seem to be coming,” Joy said. “The environment I’ve been housed in has created stress and anxiety.”
Curtis Thiessen agreed there should be partitions. “I don’t feel safe here because of the living conditions,” he said. “I believe we’re too close together.”
Fearing he would contract the virus, Ronald Shanko said he didn’t want to move to the gym but feared a disciplinary report if he refused. “We’re jammed in like sardines in a can,” he said.