The coronavirus pandemic is giving new urgency to an ongoing lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections that demands the release of “low-risk” inmates from state prisons.
Lawyers for inmates have filed additional motions asking that those who are deemed low risk by the state and would already be released in the next year be released immediately to prevent the spread of the virus. A special hearing on the motion is scheduled for Thursday afternoon before three federal judges.
On Tuesday, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced it’s granting release to about 3,500 inmates, all of whom were already scheduled to be released in the next 60 days.
Alison Hardy, an attorney for Prison Law Office, who’s representing inmates in the Thursday hearing, said those releases are a step in the right direction, but not enough.
“We are hopeful that we can persuade the judges that the only way to avert disaster, both inside the prison walls and in the communities where those prisons are located is to bring the population density down so that people in prison can also observe the kind of safety measures that the rest of us are all observing around the country,” Hardy said.
Lawyers and advocates have been pressing Gov. Gavin Newsom to do more to decrease crowding at prisons and prevent further spread of the coronavirus. They wrote a letter to the governor earlier this week stating that while the total prison capacity in California is 85,000, there are currently 122,000 inmates in the state’s 35 prisons.
“With multiple confirmed COVID-19 cases at California’s prisons of staff and incarcerated individuals, unless you take action very soon, it is only a matter of time before California’s jails and prisons become a source of uncontrolled transmission for the COVID-19 virus,” the letter said.
Hardy said 47,000 of the 122,000 inmates live in dormitories that house 10-100 people.
“So while the rest of us in the country are not allowed to congregate in groups larger than 10, people in the prison have no choice other than to live with scores of people,” she said. “In many cases, their beds are within arm’s length of each other.”
Victims advocates have opposed earlier releases, saying they are unjust and could endanger public safety.
In a statement, CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz said, “We do not take these new measures lightly.”
“Our first commitment at CDCR is ensuring safety – of our staff, of the incarcerated population, of others inside our institutions, and of the community at large,” he said. “However, in the face of a global pandemic, we must consider the risk of COVID-19 infection as a grave threat to safety, too.”
Hardy said keeping inmates in prison where they’re more likely to get sick is also a threat to public safety, as the disease could spread outside the prison through employees or when inmates are released.
As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, there were 25 prison employees who had tested positive for COVID-19 and eight inmates. Guards and other workers have their temperatures checked each day when they report for work.
The state is also taking other measures to decrease crowding, including blocking the transfer of inmates from county jails to state prisons and taking a few hundred inmates out of dorms.