Voices of concern, love and a call to action were raised by families, friends and prison reform advocacy groups to welcome a new change in CDCR leadership.
Sistas’ With Voices (SWV), a reentry and prison reform and advocacy group, led a rally on October 1 at CDCR headquarters in Sacramento to welcome Kathleen Allison, the new secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), into her Sacramento office.
“This event was put on to welcome the new CDCR Secretary Allison into her role and to let her know that we as family members and concerned citizens were watching her,” said Elsie Lee and Mia Shells, founders of SWV, in a joint statement to San Quentin News. “We expected that she got to work that day to bring change to CDCR. She cannot sit by and watch our loved ones get infected and some pass away because of this horrible virus,” they added.
“What’s frustrating is that CDCR officials think they know better than we do,” said James King, Ella Baker’s State Campaigner and former SQ resident. “They think we are naive for saying that these people could safely come home tomorrow. What they are mistaking for naïveté is actually love. We stand with our loved ones because we love them.
“We know what it feels like to sit outside of a state prison for hours waiting to go in for a few precious moments or sit by the phone so that you don’t miss that 15-minute call. There have been no state visits since March and that’s unacceptable,” he added.
Major concerns for healthcare workers who joined the rally were mental health and the possibility of medical neglect inside prisons.
“We’ve seen this happen before with the Valley Fever disease within the state prison system,” said Dr. MK Osolof, from the Decarcerate Sacramento organization. “CDCR eventually enacted policies to transfer those susceptible to Valley Fever to facilities outside of the Central Valley. Their actions came far too late and nearly 3,500 people incarcerated were diagnosed with the disease and at least 53 people died at that time.
“Despite a lawsuit against the state, individuals have never been compensated for the harms they endured due Elsie Lee Senate Bill 1437 (a felony murder re-sentencing bill). “It was a long, long fight. to CDCR neglect,” said Osolof. “Now we are here today in the midst of another pandemic with COVID-19 and CDCR continues to mirror its past errors.”
In recognition of October’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, formerly incarcerated women gave insightful speeches in support of the women still incarcerated.
“When I was a teenager, I was found guilty by association,” said Tara Williams. “I was given a life without the possibility of parole sentence. Because I was a victim of my own social-economical, disenfranchised environment. I became a victim of our judiciary system. I was railroaded into a system that violated my rights on every level. I was recently released under Senate Bill 1437 (a felony murder re-sentencing bill).
“It was a long, long fight. It’s so unfortunate for women that do not have the support or the means to be able to allow their voices to count and be acknowledged. They are sitting in there doing a death sentence. They’re fighting COVID and being exposed to all the inhumane dangers the prisons impose on their lives behind those walls. I am here to support my community, my loved ones and my family in prison.”
Cherell Howze, the founder of Our Daughter’s Destiny, a reentry program in Sacramento, added, “We grow up in these environments where you’re not taught how to get out and find a job. You’re not taught how to really be a good citizen and then you are punished for it. And then, not all of the time is the punishment matching the crime.
“So when I finally got out I said OK, I’m going to figure this out. I put together this program where I can go back and help those women. Because there are women that I was in there with still doing life sentences…This pandemic is exposing the social inequalities because of mass incarceration and mistreatment in the jails’ health care system. This is not new, but the news is now on it, which is great, but now is the time to really fight,” she added.
Letters from incarcerated loved ones were also read to the crowd, expressing their fears.
“I am mentally and emotionally terrified said one letter. “I suffer from Valley Fever and COVID has proven to be a menacing deadly virus. We lost 29 lives in San Quentin. We would like to take a moment of silence for the 67 lives lost within CDCR,” the letter writer added.
Secretary Allison was unable to meet with the rally participants, so her responding letter to their request was read to the audience.
“I do want to impress upon you and your loved ones, as well as every family member and supporter of our incarcerated population in CDCR, that I understand and care deeply about the issues outlined in your letter,” said Allison, in her statement.
“As a licensed Registered Nurse, I have been on the frontlines of the health care issues throughout my career, and my top priority is to respond to this pandemic, protect our just over 92,000 inmates, and ensure we communicate with supporters like you,” she added.
Sistas’ With Voices and the reform coalition vowed to keep fighting for releases to save their incarcerated loved ones’ lives. They are planning more rallies and to strengthen their reentry programs.
“We tell all our brothers and sisters that are locked behind the walls to hold on; your sisters are out here fighting for you,” said SWV’s Lee and Shells. “We have not left you and we are not done until CDCR opens the gates. We will leave no man [or woman] behind.”