Major protests, media appearances and a growing social media campaign are being led by former San Quentin prisoners, families of the currently incarcerated, prison reform advocates and some government officials.
“We (the coalition) continue to agree with public health experts who have said that at least a 50%reduction in the incarcerated rate is necessary for public health safety,” said James King, former San Quentin resident, member of the Ella Baker Center for Human Justice, and state campaigner for the Oakland-based organization, #STOPSANQUENTINOUTBREAK.
The campaign is “not just for people inside the prison but people outside of prison,” King continued.
King paroled from San Quentin in December after being found suitable for release by the Board of Parole Hearings. King worked as a lead clerk for the Prison University Project (recently renamed as Mt. Tamalpais College), the institution’s college program.
Adnan Khan and Eric “Maserati-E” Abercrombie, two former San Quentin residents, took to the airwaves via social media and radio. Both men bought awareness to the prison’s COVID-19 outbreak in a podcast interview with Brie Williams of the Geriatrics and Palliative (GeriPal) Care blog.
“Physical distancing is impossible in prison and jail,” said Khan on the broadcast. “They’re not built for it. Walkways are three feet wide. Bunk beds where you can feel all your neighbors’ breath.”
“To compound the issue, prisoners are afraid that if they get sick they will be put in The Hole (solitary confinement). So they don’t admit when they’re sick,” Khan and Abercrombie added. “The major response should be decarceration. Reduce the crowding in our overcrowded correctional facilities.”
Since returning home, the pair has worked tirelessly to bring awareness to the community.
“Many people think of prisons as disconnected from society, like a cruise ship,” said Khan. “But for every two people in a correctional facility, there’s about one person who works in the facility and lives in a community. The workers are bringing out whatever they’ve been exposed to in prison.”
Khan and Abercrombie produced short films and public service announcements through FirstWatch, a film-making program at San Quentin before paroling.
Khan is the executive director of Re:Store justice, a justice advocacy organization.
Abercrombie is a singer/songwriter whose music can be heard on the Fox Sports documentary Q-Ball and the San Quentin podcast Ear Hustle.
In July the #STOPSANQUENTINOUTBREAK coalition movement reached the gates of the prison. Chants of “Free Them All” and banners calling for action waved in the background. The coalition held a press conference that included these elected officials: State Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco; Assemblymembers Marc Levine, D-San Rafael; and Ash Kalra, D-San Jose.
Some of the officials called for a continued monitoring of the COVID-19 outbreak inside California prisons. “We must sustain attention here at San Quentin and at every facility where people are sentenced for time and locked up across the state of California,” said Assemblymember Levine. “We must sustain this attention because unfortunately COVID-19 is not going away, so we can’t let our guard down.”
San Quentin’s COVID-19 outbreak ballooned to more than 2,000 positive cases and the death of 26 prisoners and one correctional officer.
Activists and family members are calling for release of those incarcerated to make it easier to control the spread of the virus inside the prison, and bringing the medical care within the system into compliance with the constitutional standards that were court-mandated.
The activists are not naïve of the challenges and possible lack of political will to have major releases. But the returning citizens who have become agents of change urge Gov. Gavin Newsom and CDCR to follow that data.
“The science of people aging out of crime, as well as the CDCR’s own risk assessments that have identified tens of thousands of people as low risk for recidivism or violence, should be the criteria,” said King.
What we need right now is political leadership that 1) directly addresses the public’s misguided fear of anyone who has been convicted of a serious violent crime; 2) proactively seeks out real strategies for safely housing and supporting thousands of people as they return from prison…and, above all, 4) transforms the state’s sentencing laws.
“What we do not need are legislators, advocates, or members of the media who seek to craft sensationalistic scandals out of deeply entrenched systematic problems or sidestep collective societal failures by, for example, calling for the heads of the leadership of San Quentin or CDCR.
Lewen added that things at San Quentin would be dramatically worse if San Quentin did not have its current warden.
“There must be space in this society for the humanity of every single person,” said Lewen. “The coming weeks and months will likely challenge us in unprecedented ways to respond to the question of why the lives of people in prison—including those who may have committed extreme violence—have value and meaning.”
King concluded, “We stand by ready to help facilitate and use our resources to facilitate safe entry.”