California prison reform got a boost as Gov. Gavin Newsom signed various legislative bills into law. But some of the incarcerated remain skeptical about whether there will be any real changes.
Parole for the elderly, prison closures and transgender correctional housing requests are among the changes that the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (CDCR) will see in the new year.
The Elderly Parole Program was formerly reserved for those who were 60 years old and had served 25 years. With AB 3234 signed into law, parole consideration is now for those 50 years old and who have served 20 years. For those eligible, a parole hearing will be held by December 31, 2022.
“This should be beneficial, but in reality, we had a lot of bills. We had 60-25 and how many went home off that?” said Anthony “Habib” Watkins, 61, who has served 22 years. He is eligible for an early parole hearing. “I still have high hopes that this reform may make a difference. At least we will have a chance to demonstrate our cognitive behavior to the parole board and do our part in restorative justice,” he added.
Under the law, the board will give special consideration to whether age, time served and diminished physical capacity, if any, have reduced an elderly prisoner’s risk for future violence. This law does not alter the rights of the victims at the parole board hearing. Those who are on Death Row, serving life without the possibility of parole or are convicted of first-degree murder of a peace officer are not eligible.
Prison closures are now a reality, after decades of prison overcrowding. Initially, CDCR had to identify two facilities to close by Jan 10, 2021. Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI), also known as Tracy, is slated to be closed by September 30, 2021. The other prison has yet to be named but must be chosen by January 10, 2022. Before the choice is made, CDCR will consider the relatively high operational cost or infrastructure needs compared to prisoner capacity, flexible housing assignment capacity, and long-term operational costs, etc. according to the Legislative Counsel’s Digest and the October 2020 Legislative Update from the Legal Service for Prisoners with Children Newsletter.
“If the state is going to confine us the conditions should be liveable,” said Robert Ebertowski, an SQ resident. “I was at Tracy and the water there was not even drinkable. But the closures are a step in the right direction because as American citizens and human beings, our rights didn’t stop when we came to prison.”
The Transgender Respect, Agency and Dignity Act was also signed. Transgender, nonbinary (those who neither identity exclusively male or female) or intersex may be housed in men’s or women’s facilities (including residential programs) based on the individual’s preference. The CDCR will privately ask for gender identity (female, male or nonbinary) or whether the person identifies as transgender, nonbinary or intersex during initial intake. An individual may decline to answer and may not be disciplined for refusing to answer. They will be called by their preferred gender pronoun or surname. And at any time the person may inform staff of their gender identity and staff will start the process over.
“I really hope it helps staff to respect us more,” said Cassandra Evans, SQ resident. “We still face discrimination from some C/Os (Correctional Officers) telling us things like ‘man up’ or not calling us by our correct pronouns. It’s not like we are going to tell on them all the time—which we should. But retaliation is real, even when the law says they can’t.”
Evans thanked State Sen. Scott Wiener (D), the author of the bill, and his staff for coming to San Quentin and talking with them during their Trans-Remembrance Day event. She also reflected on what the housing choice may bring.
“I think it will be about comfort. Most of us have been in men’s prisons for so long that you don’t know how others will accept you at the other prisons,” said Evans. “It’s good that we have the choice. Now, it will be about how things transition. We just have to wait and see how people will adjust.”
Other noticeable changes that will take effect are: formerly incarcerated firefighters are now eligible to have their record expunged, making a path for them to become firefighters and EMTs; some convictions are excluded.
Pregnant incarcerated people can have a support person present during childbirth. Officers are prohibited from using tasers, pepper spray and other chemical weapons on pregnant prisoners. Women also will be offered pregnancy tests and prenatal care and services, both in jails and prisons.
The California Racial Justice Act is another major change. It prohibits the state from seeking or obtaining a conviction or sentence based on race, ethnicity or national origin, which must be shown by the evidence. Also, California’s jury pools have been expanded to include everyone who files income tax returns and not just those who registered to vote or have a driver’s license.
Not all bills were signed. Gov. Newsom vetoed the Prisons: Confidential Informants bill (AB 1064), which would have prohibited a CDCR employee or a private entity under contract with the CDCR from finding an incarcerated person guilty of a rule violation if the decision is based on information from an in-custody confidential informant that is not corroborated or reliable. It would have also prohibited the parole board from using such uncorroborated allegations to deny parole.
“I’m mortified,” said an SQ resident who wanted to remain anonymous. “Without the signing of AB 1064, my due process rights as an incarcerated person will be blocked. Any statement by another person or C/O claimed in uncorroborated facts or false accusations can go unchallenged no matter what the motive is. It can be used to keep us in the SHU (Security Housing Unit) or get us a for-sure denial at the [parole] board. So you may have to plead guilty to an untruth just to get out of the SHU or get a parole date, which is not right,” the person added. The bill has to go back to the full Assembly for a vote.
The Youth Offender Parole Credit-earning Law (AB 965) has been placed on hold. Due to COVID-19, CDCR officials have yet to release the regulations for AB 965’s implementation, according to the Initiate Justice Newsletter for September 2020.
“This is a huge disappointment being that this is a critical aspect in helping eligible folks be heard for parole suitability sooner rather than later,” reported the Newsletter.
The CDCR also has not released the regulations for the Expansion of Good Conduct Credits. The credits will not apply retroactively, according to the Newsletter.
As for the bills that did not succeed or had to be dropped, some prison reform advocates said they are gearing up for the next legislative cycle in 2021.