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.
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.
Because of the COVID-19 situation at the prison, the San Quentin News newsroom has been shut down and staff members have been unable to meet to create new issues. The articles in this online issue were written by incarcerated staff members before the shutdown. This online version of the paper was published with the assistance of former San Quentin News incarcerated staff members, who have been released, and long-time volunteers, plus the support of San Quentin Public Information Officer Lt. Sam Robinson. When the emergency relents the paper will resume coverage.
A new community of deaf people has finally arrived at San Quentin Prison.
After battles in the courts and multiple fights contesting the ability of the deaf to function on non-handicapped prison yards, officials have conceded that deaf people may attend the programs that they desire, said one ex-prison official.
“I love the environment and everybody spoke to me,” said new resident Dubose Scarborough through the translation of a San Quentin resident who is fluent in sign language. Scarborough is here from Corcoran State Prison with four years left in his prison term. He wants to do the vocational programs most of all.
During a tour of the facility, nine deaf people sat in the San Quentin News office in their green vests, looking at their surroundings and asking good questions. Although the incarcerated person who was giving the tour was a skilled veteran of sign language, it was a challenge for him to keep up with the barrage of questions and answers.
“I taught sign at Lancaster prison where I was able to relay messages of change from gang members and testimony from youngsters on peer pressure and choices,” said translator Tommy Wickerd. “So doing this is a pleasure.”
American Sign Language (ASL) has been around for decades, but not in San Quentin’s level II facility.
At other prisons the deaf may be subjected to harsher treatment from other incarcerated people and/or prison staff.
“Deaf people may serve longer prison terms than their hearing counterparts because they are not able to equally access educational and rehabilitative programming,” said Prison Legal Office attorney Rita Lomio in an earlier interview.
There are almost 100 programs at San Quentin and they are available to everyone who wants to apply. However, being deaf can be a challenge when trying to get into some of them, even though the U.S. Department of Justice Analysis set regulations requiring all jails, correctional facilities and detention centers to provide services that meet the needs of deaf people so they may participate in programs in any place.
When the deaf population arrived, they wanted to know if there was a designated place for them to hang out on the yard. With the help of the officials they were given a specific place.
Other challenges deaf people may face are the numerous alarms that sound off during the day at San Quentin. When the men hear them, they must get down on the ground. Fortunately, the residents at San Quentin are being considerate of the needs of the deaf population.
Scarborough wanted to know about the newspaper and that led to a conversation about its history. New deaf resident Scott Roberson sat quietly and observed, only nodding and suggesting with gestures of his hands.
Deaf San Quentin resident Joshua Lovett is able to speak in a regular fashion and he translates for other deaf residents. He relayed a statement from the only trans female in the deaf group who prefers the pronoun she, Charles “Cristina” Toste. It is her first time in prison, but she feels welcomed in San Quentin as she is. She asked, in humorous fashion, “Are you guys enjoying watching us? And how do y’all accept trans people here?” Men on the news staff addressed the question: There are many trans individuals at the prison now and they have adapted to the community.
She then asked if it was a challenge for the non-disabled, if they found it hard to communicate with those who are deaf, and how the deaf are accommodated.
The American Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that the deaf be treated equally to those without disabilities. An example is phone calls: during the hours of phone use, TDD and telecommunication devices must be available to deaf persons.
It’s no surprise to see that these unique individuals are happy to be inside this new prison environment. The smiles were evident.
There are currently almost 100 deaf inmates within CDCR. A majority are currently housed in the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF). According to prisoner rights advocates, housing these inmates at SATF makes it difficult to provide them with needed interpretation services.
Don Specter, Director of the Prison Law Office, wrote to Ralph M. Diaz, Secretary of CDCR, noting that housing deaf people at San Quentin will allow them to “have improved access to interpretation services; to more and varied programs, services, and activities; to community groups familiar with their needs.”
After translating for the crew, Wickerd felt exhausted. However, he was excited and looked forward to going back to his cell and communicating with his new, deaf celly. “The trippy part about having this particular deaf celly,” said Wickerd, “is that his name is Chris and he looks just like my brother, too.”
San Quentin’s acting warden, Ron Broomfield, recently accepted an invitation to sit in and speak directly with the incarcerated participants of Power Source, a San Quentin self-help program designed for young adults.
But more than talk, Broomfield and Chief Deputy Warden Trent Allen also came to listen to the voices of the young individuals sent to SQ as part of its Youth Offender Program (YOP).
“You learn stuff in prison. Everybody learns stuff,” said Broomfield. “But what do you do with it? What path are you going to choose?”
These are questions he had to ask himself over the years while working for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
Broomfield paralleled his own journey with the situations youth offenders face when they hit their first prison yard—particularly when deciding whether or not to follow what everybody else seems to be doing.
“Treat everyone as an individual and be your own man,” he said. “You can clique up with positive groups or negative groups. It’s absolutely critical to start thinking as individuals.
“I love the YOP program because it allows youths a chance to associate with strong individuals—positive individuals.”
One of the first things Broomfield did when he entered the Power Source meeting on Feb. 29 was ask who had been at San Quentin the least amount of time.
Mekhi Williams raised his hand. “It’ll be a year in April,” he said.
Broomfield later called on Williams to speak about his YOP experiences in the system. “What’s it done for you? What do you think?” he asked the 21-year-old.
“The only benefit I’ve seen is that I’m at a lower level prison—that’s it so far,” answered Williams. “I’m on wait lists for all the programs, but I’m not in any yet.”
A prisoner’s security level is based on a point system determined by CDCR. The more points, the higher their security level. CDCR designates its prisons from Levels I through IV.
Level IV prisons usually offer very few positive programs, yet most youth offenders enter the system with Level IV points. Being classified as YOP lets them be housed at Level II facilities like SQ.
“It’s easy to get in trouble if there’s nothing here for you to do,” Williams told Broomfield. “There ought to be a mandatory YOP group right when we get off the bus. “That way we’d have somewhere to go.”
Because SQ’s current reputation as a progressive programming facility revolves around a wide range of innovative self-help curriculums, non-YOP prisoners throughout CDCR make an effort to get here and work on their rehabilitation.
Demand to get into programs is high, and wait lists are long. It’s a problem Broomfield and Allen are all too familiar with.
Much of the interaction between Broomfield, Allen and the Power Source participants focused on the issue of getting YOPs (as they’re commonly referred to) more immediate access to programs they need now.
But Broomfield appeared to draw the line at the mention of offering YOPs preferential treatment.
“I like to treat everyone the same, give everyone the same opportunities,” said the acting warden.
Ayoola Mitchell, the volunteer facilitator who helped bring Power Source to SQ, continues to advocate for more programming aimed specifically at youth.
“It’d be really great for programs like VOEG [Victim Offender Education Group] or GRIP [Guiding Rage Into Power] to have a YOP component,” she suggested. “YOPs’ needs are different. The way I facilitate with them is different. We’ve got to meet them where they are.”
Broomfield and Allen were bombarded by positive ideas about peer-to-peer mentorship programs, a formal YOP orientation and, basically, finding more spaces to run more programs.
“We bug everybody we can about workable space,” said Allen. “If we can find a way to make it work, we’ll make it happen. This homegrown stuff is the best for us because it comes from the people here doing it.”
Bloomfield described how at one point in his career he was ready to retire. He’d had enough of walking in and out of prisons day in and day out.
“It was exhausting,” he said. But then he took a job assignment at SQ two years ago.
“San Quentin restored my hope that people can change. It put the wind back in my sails,” said Bloomfield. “It blew my mind that a prison could be so hopeful and full of opportunities.
“You know, the system’s changing. Our officers are getting better education. Before, it was all about disturbance control. Now, we’re learning de-escalation techniques; how to talk to people.
“Things are definitely changing under Ralph Diaz’s leadership, but you guys may not fully see it for a couple more years. The old ways are dying off slow.”
Bloomfield also talked a little bit about CDCR’s ongoing plans for YOPs.
“The state, as a whole, is reimagining its YOP program,” he said. “As we speak, Valley State Prison is becoming the YOP model facility. It’s a good prison, mellow.”
Brian Holliday, a Power Source participant, told Bloomfield what it meant for the acting warden to come sit in on the group session that day.
“Usually, the way we see wardens, like in a prison movie, it’s not good,” explained Holliday. “I’ve never seen no warden come down like this. For you to come and intermingle with us, it really gives us a chance to see who you are.”
“You’ll see a whole lot more of me,” Bloomfield assured the incarcerated individuals. “Being able to facilitate opportunity; that’s the part of my job I really enjoy.
“And it’s not just me. My staff, too. We want to know you, understand you and get you where you need to be. The ‘R’ in CDCR is there for a reason.”
Allen voiced his agreement. “Listening to the boss, he makes me want to stay here.” Looking around the room, he said to everyone, “This passion—it excites both of us.”
“I want to see what’s best for everyone here. The goal is to get everybody out of here and back on the streets as better men.”
Part of the agreement YOPs make to come to a lower level prison includes losing that privilege when they get a disciplinary write-up. They’re often seen as taking this for granted, as young troublemakers.
One YOP spoke up about the way he perceives some officers’ treatment of the younger prisoners.
“A lot of the time, it’s like we have a target on our back—especially from staff,” he said. “We’re picked on and messed with because it’s easier to get us out of here. “That’s not right. It doesn’t give us a fair chance.”
“I’ll give you a fair chance. I can’t speak for another man,” Bloomfield told him. “If you experience someone with a bad personality, take it upon yourself to impose the 15-foot rule.
“There’s good cops, cops that care. Just like guys at this prison, men in blue. Believe me, there’s plenty of them. I don’t paint anybody with a wide brush.
“And I ask that of you, also. Don’t paint all of us with a wide brush.”
Williams later shared how he felt when Bloomfield asked him about the YOP experience.
“He just seemed like a regular person. He didn’t seem stuck up or nothin’ like that,” said Williams. “He gave honest answers about what he was capable of—you know, a genuine person.
“Wardens, we usually look at them as a–holes—you know, cruel. He didn’t seem like that.”
For the first time in history, an incarcerated community has an independent, accredited college program all its own. Newly named Mt. Tamalpais College (MTC) has established residency at San Quentin State Prison.
“Everything happening right now is an affirmation of the unique challenges and questions we’ve faced. Every prison should have a college.”
PUP spent 2018 and 2019 preparing itself for evaluation by the Association of Community Colleges and Junior Colleges (ACCJC). Near the end of January, the ACCJC accepted PUP as a Candidate for Accreditation.
Mt. Tamalpais College can now operate as an independent academic institution and completely break free from PUP’s longstanding affiliation with Patten University. For years, the partnership allowed PUP courses and degrees to be accredited.
“Patten actually did us a solid [favor],” said Lewen. “They’re fully shut down now, but they stayed open until we received accreditation. They didn’t want our students to be harmed.”
Under ACCJC guidelines, MTC has a two-year window to get its program fully in compliance with accreditation standards. The required improvements will mainly focus on data tracking and assessing student outcomes.
Lewen started teaching at San Quentin in the Spring of 1999 and reflected back on the decades she’s devoted to bringing higher education to her incarcerated students.
“I’ve always asked the questions: What quality of education can we provide, based on our resources? How many people can we realistically serve? How much money can we raise? What kinds of careers will our students use their education for? How will we develop strategies to carry our voices out onto the public sphere?”
“To me, achieving our independence seems like an overwhelmingly positive response to all these questions.”
For most PUP students, Amy Jamgochian became a familiar figure as their Academic Program Coordinator for the last five years. She’s always remained accessible and ready to listen to each student’s individual needs.
“I knew very little about the accreditation world,” said Jamgochian, now MTC Chief Academic Officer. “We have to up our game in demonstrating the value of our program and the rigor of our education.
“We’re the first of our kind—pioneers. That’s exciting! It’s gratifying to know that so many of our students support our independence.”
Corey McNeil sees things from the students’ perspective. As a PUP graduate and now an education clerk for MTC, he interacts with his peers daily and fields questions from them about upcoming changes.
“Everyone’s excited about a whole new gamut of classes becoming available,” said McNeil. “So many students have suggestions and ideas. It’ll be really interesting to see how that all plays out in the future.”
By most accounts, it will be business as usual for now. Learning Specialist Allison Lopez said MTC will continue providing the same high quality education that PUP has for years.
“We’re doing what we’ve always done,” said Lopez. “The biggest thing right now is a symbolic change, with branding our new name and establishing ourselves as an independent program. It’s a big statement, of course, but for our students everything mostly should feel the same—in a good way.”
Lewen said one of the biggest challenges continues to be planning for financial sustainability.
“Our program has no wealthy alumni,” she said. “We’ve never charged our students any fees or tuition. And we receive zero funding from the state or federal government.
“What’s our plan? We’ll have to develop and broaden our donor base of individuals and foundations, but it’s not just about money. It’s about community support.”
Kathy Richards currently serves as Secretary on the MTC Board of Directors. “Some people think it’s insane for prisoners to get a free education,” she said. “Some think I’m insane for coming in here.”
“Fortunately, a lot of folks see the value—see how amazing it is. The more people that come in here and say, ‘Wow, this is cool,’ it changes that view.”
Richards also teaches English and coaches the Ethics Bowl team, which stands undefeated through three years of league competition.
“Society as a whole is better off when they meet the individuals who are actually here,” she said. “People have ideas on what a felon is, then they’re surprised to see their ideas are wrong.”
In September, David Durand joined the MTC faculty as Director of Student Affairs. He started out volunteering as a PUP instructor almost a year ago.
“Now that we don’t have any limitations, it’s like a blank slate of opportunities,” said Durand. “That excites me. I love being involved in things from scratch.
“Coming into our own identity and seeing our students learning what they’re truly capable of doing, we’re building a roadmap for other institutions.”
Durand recently helped launch mentorship program where students and nonstudents can all come together to, hopefully, forge organic and collaborative relationships.
Swati Rayasam first got involved in Jan. 2019 as a volunteer research assistant for English 204—the requisite course where students complete a notoriously daunting research paper as their class project.
Rayasam, who co-teaches this semester’s 204 class, sees herself as a “research challenger” and “growth opportunist.”
“Being recognized as independent and accredited—that just validates the PUP model of education as a form of empowerment,” she said. “It’s a real win. Education should be more than teachers lecturing at students.
“In a growth-minded environment, I learn as much from you as you learn from me. It’s incredibly powerful. Now we’ll be able to box this program up and give it to other facilities.”
MTC Communications Associate Jared Rothenberg definitely has his work cut out for him. “My role will be to focus on communicating our new identity,” he said. “We’re literally a new entity now.
“PUP’s history and reputation’s going to continue, but we’re going to be known as something else.”
Rothenberg said he sees MTC’s independence as a real opportunity to educate the public by amplifying the voice of the student body.
“Incarcerated people are just as intellectually capable as anyone else,” said Rothenberg. “We can show how to lead the field—not only of higher education in prison, but of higher education in general.”
Timothy Hicks wrote the following article well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit San Quentin. It foretells the disaster that would unfold at prisons generally and at San Quentin in particular.
The Corona Virus has hit the U.S., prompting a fear is that it may hit prisons, with many questioning its possible impact.
“Given the volume of incarcerated people in America, the conditions under which they are detained, and the current spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, there is every reason to question whether American detention facilities, as a whole, are up to the challenge,” said Nina J. Ginsberg, the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
According to Business Insider, the US prison and jail systems have more than two million people incarcerated.
“They’re unique because these people are in tight confines, often tightly packed,” said Dr. Burton Bentley II, emergency medical physician and founder of the consulting firm Elite Medical Experts.
The respiratory virus has sickened almost 100,000 people worldwide, reported the Marshall Project. Almost 5000 people have died so far with many of the initial deaths in Wuhan, China where the virus originated.
At San Quentin, prison officials are taking preventive measures to stop the virus from spreading into the prison from the outside. They have shut down the visiting room at the prison, as well as all the volunteer-led programs.
“I’m going to miss my wife,” said Arthur D. Jackson. “But, she understands why they would do that, because if it got in here in this close environment it would spread like wildfire. Although, I am conflicted and I miss my wife I do understand and I know it is for the best,” said Jackson.
Earlier, college classes within the prison closed down because of the coronavirus.
“It’s disheartening,” said Jackson, who works as the main clerk for Mt. Tamalpais College (formally known as Patten College.) “It’s going to stagnate a lot of guys’ programs and put their education on hold. Some people are working on their A.A. degrees and earning credits that can reduce their time they spend in prison.”
“The suspension is a hiccup but I really commend the college staff for making that move to suspend its program voluntarily. It shows how much they really care for us in this community in prison,” Jackson added.
According to local news agencies, schools and other social gathering places were recently shut down and those elderly and most vulnerable to the virus were advised to stay home. Now, everyone in the six Bay Area counties has been told to “shelter in place.” Only those in the most essential services will continue to go to their workplaces.
“There is no way to stop it in prison,” said Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office. Specter has been briefed by correctional officials on plans how to handle the COVID – 19 behind bars. This theory is based on protocols on how the prison system handled the flu virus.
In China, the prisons have become a hotbed for the new coronavirus, reported the Business Insider. Iran has already had outbreaks in their prisons of the Covid-19 virus.
According to a Prison Policy Initiative report, some of the considerations to combat the coronavirus:
Release medically fragile and older adults from prisons and jails. Those with complex medical needs are more than likely to be affected. That will reduce the need of care for those who have chronic illnesses. It will also help prevent them from being infected by viral infections like COVID-19. Iran has already given temporary leaves to a quarter of its prison population, said the report.
Other solutions the report lists: Lowering jail admissions to reduce “jail churns.” To reduce the churns some state leaders are re-classifying misdemeanor offenses, reducing parole or probation meetings and even eliminating parole and probation revocations for technical violations altogether.
A joint statement by 31 elected prosecutors from jurisdictions throughout the US supports such changes and also advocates for immediately releasing those who are within six months of finishing their sentences, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Meanwhile, Yale School of Public Health epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves blames the prisons for having many issues that are hazardous. “Prisons throw people into the paths of epidemics, whether it is TB or HIV or corona virus, said Gonsalves.” He continued, “People without proper ventilation is a perfect breeding ground for quick transmission of any respiratory virus.”
People who are incarcerated do have health care, but he doubts that it is adequate. “Prison healthcare isn’t what it should be,” said Gonslaves. “The question is whether the U.S., state and local correctional facilities are up to the task of preventing infections and whether they have necessary resources to care for the sick, and I’m not sure they are up to the task.”
Oakland is the first city in the state to ban landlords from using criminal convictions to reject renters applying for private or public housing.
The City Council unanimously passed the Fair Chance Housing Ordinance that prohibits landlords asking about a previous criminal conviction or denying an applicant with such a record.
“This is incredibly timely, given our collective commitment and my personal commitment to addressing homelessness and housing in our city,” said Councilwoman Nikki Fortunato Bas, a co-sponsor of the ordinance.
It is routine for anyone applying to rent an apartment to have a background check conducted and often people with criminal convictions are denied. This makes it difficult if not impossible for a formerly incarcerated person to find housing, the Bay Area News Group reported.
Wayne Rowland, president of the East Bay Rental Housing Association expressed concern about the new ordinance.
“As rental housing providers, we have responsibility to provide a safe environment to residents, and a huge part of that is knowing the background of each applicant,” Rowland said in a written statement.
San Francisco and Richmond have similar ordinances, but those measures apply only to subsidized housing. Berkeley City Council is poised to vote on a similar ordinance banning tenant background checks, with similar measure being proposed for Emeryville and Alameda County, the story reported.
A supporter of these type ordinances, Margaretta Lin, executive director of Just Cities, said landlords still have access to credit reports, references and employment information – all things needed to determine if an applicant will make a good renter.
The Oakland ordinance does not apply to single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes and in-law units if the owner is living on the property. Roommates seeking to replace a roommate can use background checks to exclude a potential tenant.
A landlord can still look up a prospective tenant on the states sex-offender registry, but only after providing a conditional offer to the potential renter.
The new ordinance also exempts owners of government subsidized affordable housing like Section 8 to continue to use criminal background checks to comply with federal law. At this time, federal law requires landlords to reject potential tenants who have been convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine or are on a lifetime sex-offender registry.
Oakland can fine landlords up to $1,000 for each violation of the ordinance.