Incompetence and inaction by California’s leaders are driving illness and death inside the state’s prison system.
I just found out my friend died. He contracted COVID-19 in San Quentin State Prison after a botched transfer of positive cases there. As I write this in my grief, I cannot imagine the devastation his family is experiencing with the loss. I knew him well. I was incarcerated with him in San Quentin where I was serving a life sentence. We spent a lot of time together on the yard, in self-help groups and educational classes. I also know San Quentin, the prison, really well. I spent my previous four years there, completing a total of sixteen.
His death was preventable and his safety should’ve been prioritized. He tested negative on June 25 and then died on July 25. He was mixed with positive cases after he tested negative. San Quentin doesn’t have anything under control. All it would’ve taken was political courage to reduce the prison population significantly. Tragically, given what he was left with–trapped in a tight box with COVID-19–survival was out of his control and death was inescapable for him. Sadly, most people won’t care about my friend’s passing. His incarceration gave the state legitimacy to deny him his humanity. As a society, we accept punishment and torture as the only exchange for breaking a law, not redemption. Inhumane treatment becomes acceptable–so as we enter incarceration, the human being gets extracted from the body. Our dignity is confiscated along with the personal, material belongings during the initial strip search.
All of this is made possible by society’s narrow focus on solely the crime. Subsequently, the narrative is shaped as a permanent boogeyman-esque identity for that person. We hardly ever factor in the next decade or two of that human being’s journey to make that assessment whole and accurate. What the public fatally lacks is something we as incarcerated people have an abundance of in prison. Proximity. In prison, we get to know each other extremely well. As the years crawl and the hours get slower, we fill each challenging second by dissecting each other’s lives. We become each other’s test studies and learn the anatomy of the proverbial heart. We spend hours upon hours crammed in tight spaces calculating the psychology behind each other’s thoughts.
Trust and safety are destinations in prison. If found, a sudden ability to go into the depths of each other’s innermost shame, pain, trauma, remorse and the thorough details of a person’s accountability for the harm they’ve caused are unlocked. Oftentimes for the incarcerated, this level of intimacy can gain a more profound understanding than one’s own family. We carry each other’s stories with us wherever we go. The heart-wrenching, often gruesome experiences shared with us do not get left behind upon our release either. It’s not that I remember, it’s that I know. I know who was molested by their father, who was beaten with closed fists by their foster parent at 8 years old, and whose friend was shot and died in his arms at the age of 14. For larger society, these stories don’t match the face tattoos or visible scars. These stories don’t match the warm smiles or laugh lines we see on the prison yard daily. It’s like a deception of senses where I’m staring at the body and face of a grown adult yet hearing the sounds of a child’s shriek.
Furthermore, I know why they committed their crimes. Not to make an excuse for the crime but to understand why. Why they committed robbery, assault or murder. But society is deprived of such a narrative. They’re deprived of the level of accountability and the depths of remorse my fellow incarcerated people have for their victims. I wish they could see how many good people exist inside. I wish they could observe how much of our lives are spent trying to make amends, somehow, some way. Instead, their identity is forever trapped in a time capsule that society and politics has forced them into. As an activist who has been impacted by incarceration, I don’t have a work life that is separate from a personal life. Detaching the two feels immoral to me. I can’t clock out of caring about someone. Getting to know people comes with a burden. Especially in prison. Especially when leaving them behind upon your release. Proximity comes with a set of responsibilities of which you become the project manager of. Survivor’s guilt places deadlines on you that you have to reach. And as in the case of my friend, “deadline” in relation to advocacy is a horrifically accurate term.
Our organization’s slogan is “from proximity to policy.” I feel safe around the people you might fear the most. It is my proximity that gives me access to empathy. Society and political leaders are tragically uninformed about people in prison, yet, make deadly decisions based on their fears. Our obligation should be to know people in their totality, and only then can we create safe policies which address the needs of everyone. Instead, the public’s ignorance has incarcerated our loved ones’ identities and has handcuffed their humanity to their crimes. Everyone should have the privilege, like I did, to get to know a person as a whole. Society saw my friend as someone who was not deserving of dignity. They believe the person who did the crime deserved to die of COVID-19. But if they truly knew who my friend was, he would’ve been released to his family. Rather, they saw him as an enemy of the state. They chose not to acknowledge his humanity. My friend was neglected and he is one of millions of examples of other incarcerated people identical to him.
People we incarcerate are not our enemies. They are victims of societal failures and their crime does not negate their restoration. They are brothers and sisters, daughters and sons and they are someone’s really good friend. My really good friend. As much as we can argue about who the enemy is, one thing that is inarguable is that humanity’s enemy is neglect.