Prison is a snow globe. If you shake up any infectious disease, like the coronavirus or the flu, the particles will fall and infect every part of the institution.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, at least 28 incarcerated people and one correctional officer have died at San Quentin. Prisoners have been put on ventilators; others were quarantined in the Lower Yard and a fear of death spread to the rest of the population — social distancing is impossible in our tiny cells.
While around 70 percent of San Quentin prisoners have been vaccinated, for correctional staff, that figure is closer to 50 percent. And now, faced with new coronavirus variants, like Delta, prisons around the country may be facing future, more dangerous outbreaks.
Even in these times of crisis, it feels that we, the incarcerated, always have to prove our humanity to the general public.
Calls for early releases to curb the surge of COVID-19 and deaths have set off an array of emotions, ranging from joy of family members and prison reform advocates, to fear and indifference from some of the general public.
How did we get here? We have had almost 30 years of constant lawsuits. I do believe some government officials want prison reform and that must be balanced with the concerns of the general public.
Even in these times of crisis, it feels that we, the incarcerated, always have to prove our humanity to the general public
But I must say that it has mainly been the incarcerated and our advocates who have humanized life within California and the nation’s prison system. We had to fight for our religious rights (services, artifacts, grooming standards), and our access to the courts. We even had to fight to end the indefinite use of solitary confinement and win adequate healthcare — not something special, just adequate.
In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California is required to reform prisons to provide constitutionally sufficient physical and mental care to incarcerated people. Almost a decade later that can seems to be continually kicked down the road. The cases went from Plata, Coleman vs. Gov. Jerry Brown to Plata, Coleman vs. Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Now we are in the midst of a deadly pandemic and approaching flu season. The criteria of who may qualify for early release are very narrow. The debate centers on non-violent offenders versus those who have committed violent crimes.
However, the facts are rarely discussed or considered, mainly because of the type of crimes attached to the individual. According to CDCR’s own recidivism study, more than 50 percent of prisoners paroled after completion of a determinate sentence were convicted of a new crime within three years, compared to only 5 percent of lifer parolees who were convicted of a new crime within three years. A study by Stanford University between 1995 and 2010 found that of 860 murderers paroled in California, only five returned to prison for new felonies, but none that required a life term, such as murder.
So it pains us who have done the work — those of us who have worked through childhood trauma and have learned from our mistakes — that we are still considered too “risky” for release.
We also acknowledge victim/survivor rights; we believe in their voices. We learned this through participating in our self-help groups. It’s not for us to tell people who have been harmed how they should feel. We must respect the process. We just want to restore what we can.
As the coronavirus spreads and becomes our new reality, our fears of death are real. All we hope for is for society to remember: Whatever the deed was, most of us weren’t sentenced to death by the state.