The number of coronavirus cases in California’s San Quentin state prison has tripled within the last two weeks, prompting advocates, families and attorneys to demand urgent action to fast track the release of prisoners and curb the spread among correctional officers.
San Quentin, California’s oldest prison and home to the state’s only death row for male prisoners, reported its first batch of 15 positive cases on 3 June. Since then, that number has risen to 46.
Organizers are pointing to the 30 May transfer of more than 100 incarcerated people from the California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino as a catalyst for the spread of Covid-19 in the prison.
“While the individuals who were transferred are being quarantined, San Quentin staff and Corrections Officers (COs) are actively spreading the virus by not relegating themselves to one part of the prison,” organizers with #StopSanQuentinOutbreak wrote on behalf of incarcerated people in the prison.
In a statement, the CDCR spokesperson Dana Simas says that while some inmates from CIM tested positive for Covid-19 upon arrival to San Quentin, these individuals were “not exposed to the general population, and are currently isolated”. CDCR has also suspended all transfers from CIM.
Nationally, coronavirus’ spread among prison and jail populations has been described as a public health catastrophe by public health and criminal justice reform experts. For years, incarcerated people in California have complained about unsanitary, unsafe prison conditions, and as the pandemic spread these calls grew more urgent.
California’s prisons, where overcrowding has been the subject of a yearslong legal battle, are filled to more than 120% capacity, according to the CDCR’s latest population report. This makes social distancing impossible for most inmates, especially in crowded prison dormitories lined with bunk beds. In March around 40% of the CDCR population was housed in one of these dorm settings many of which, according to court records, are also over 100% capacity.
As of 18 June, the CDCR has reported 3,332 positive cases of Covid-19 and 18 people have died.
And while the number of infections at San Quentin is significantly lower than other institutions – such as CIM, which has 496 cases, and Chuckawalla Valley state prison, where 941 people have tested positive – advocates say San Quentin’s outbreak “raises ongoing questions about CDCR’s responses to Covid-19”.
“I don’t think there’s ill intention but it’s important to acknowledge these decisions have had harmful consequences,” said Rebbecca Weiker, an MPH and restorative justice practitioner for Re:Store Justice. “Layers and layers of systemic problems are being magnified by incarceration and the failures of the system to respond well.
Since the coronavirus began spreading in March, calls have mounted for the mass release of medically vulnerable and aging inmates, which make up almost 40% of the CDCR population.
According to a CDCR press release the state’s prison population has decreased by 8,000 since the beginning of March. And on 16 June CDCR announced their new community supervision program which will allow eligible people to serve the final 180 days of their sentences in home confinement. The new program excludes anyone currently serving time for a violent or serious offense, domestic violence, and those who would have to register as a sex offender upon release.
Incarcerated people with #StopSanQuentinOutbreak and organizers with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights are now calling on prison officials to take steps that include expanding opportunities for incarcerated people to earn credits that can lead to expedited releases, and expand job assignments so people can buy hygiene products from the prison canteen.