Current Affairs

Carceral Crisis in California

Prison time—no matter how short—during a worldwide pandemic is an experimental death sentence.

When people think of the most “liberal” states in the United States, California usually tops the list. But despite the state’s reputation, California’s Governor Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) have reacted to the recent rage—of wildfires, virus, people—with languor. When it comes to COVID outbreaks in particular, California also tops some lists. Two of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country right now are happening in California prisons, but the Governor and the CDCR have continually denied the only effective means of stemming the outbreaks—that is, the mass release of prisoners. As a result, what should be a common sense public health measure has become a highly embattled policy. As people continue to suffer inside prison walls, community organizers are trapped in a political struggle with the state. 

Back in March, Phil Melendez—Program Manager at Re:Store Justice—was planning a restorative justice symposium, facilitating dialogue between survivors and perpetrators of harm inside the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. But when the pandemic hit prisons in Chino and Lancaster, Melendez and his coworkers cancelled their planned programming against the advice of prison officials. 

“We had prison officials saying, ‘yeah, it’s good, go ahead and just run it,’” Melendez said. “[But] we were going to bring a large gathering inside of the prison … I had to go in there and tell them, ‘we’re going to have to cancel this. I’m sorry.’”

Instead of the symposium, Melendez and his fellow organizers began fundraising to deliver $15,000 worth of masks, gloves, and other protective supplies to Chino and Lancaster, then to other prisons. Deliveries of masks and gloves weren’t nearly enough to address supply shortages. The prisons were also short on other necessities like soap, hand sanitizer, “and even food, too.” 

In response, Re:Store Justice started the Canteen Project, which “puts money on the books” for people inside. The upwards of $50,000 in donations have gone directly to “inmate trust accounts,” which are used to buy goods—such as hygiene supplies, rice, beans, and pouch foods—from prison canteens.

Maria Casillas has organized protests at prisons across the state since the pandemic began. As a community organizer for Initiate Justice, she also worked with Melendez and Re:Store Justice to get personal protective equipment (PPE) across prison walls. Casillas was disturbed that of the over 20 prisons they offered PPE to, only four accepted. 

“If they would have accepted our donations and actually listened to us as advocates in giving them masks at early stages of this whole pandemic, maybe things would not have turned out the way they are right now,” she said.

Lee Gibson is the Inside Organizing Manager at Initiate Justice. As a formerly incarcerated organizer, he wasn’t surprised by the prisons’ unwillingness to accept help at the time. He was surprised, though, by how “shocked” prison officials were by the pandemic—or at least claimed to be.

“This isn’t anything new, with how quickly things can spread in prison. Whether it’s a cold, whether it’s the flu, they deal with this seasonally. So their stance that this is something that devastated them and they didn’t know how to respond … it seems like it has come down to a reaction and detraction type mindset,” he said.  

The observable responses of the prison system to COVID are nothing new. Prisons have long been abettors of disease, and the state is seemingly only moved to action upon loss of life. The story was the same 100 years ago, when the Spanish Flu of 1919 had three outbreaks at San Quentin, and infected over 30 percent of its prisoners. It was the same in 2009, when the H1N1 virus (Swine Flu) was making its rounds. Several California prisons and jails, including San Quentin, were quarantined: 767 prisoners were infected, and three died. The CDC’s language at the time was clear: “correctional institutions pose special risks and considerations due to the nature of their unique environment … options are limited for isolation and removal of ill persons from the environment.” With cramped quarters, limited ventilation, and little freedom of movement, prisons are the optimal environment for viral spread. The CDCR knows this. California prisons have seen it before. Organizers were prepared with material protections for those inside. The state was not.

Kenneth Hartman, a writer and activist who was imprisoned in California for 38 years, says prevention is not in the state’s nature. It’s fundamentally apathetic when it comes to protecting human life. 

“You know the prison system in California and frankly, the entire U.S., to the best of my knowledge, it’s a reactive entity. It does very little proactive work,” he said. Or, as Casillas put it, “people had to die for them to start paying attention.”   

San Quentin State Prison, home to the country’s largest viral cluster for months, was once famously America’s largest death row. Governor Newsom closed San Quentin’s death chamber with much fanfare over a year ago, but since June, 28 people have been executed there by means of virus. “This is happening, but it’s not the chair, it’s COVID,” Melendez said.  

Like all of California’s prisons, San Quentin is terribly overcrowded. Built in 1852, its four-and-a-half by eight foot cells were originally single occupancy; the state increased its capacity largely by installing more bunks. At the start of the pandemic, San Quentin was at 124.9 percent of this already inflated capacity. Physical distancing is near-impossible. In the North and West Blocks, which house 1,600 people, windows are welded shut. No air gets in, or out. The combination of crowding and lack of ventilation make San Quentin a model for COVID incubation—as though it had been designed, on purpose, to aid the virus’ propagation. Despite this, when the Innovative Genomics Institute at Berkeley offered free COVID-19 testing services to San Quentin, they were turned away with a now-haunting message: “‘thank you, but we’re all set for now.’” 

The hits kept coming. The setup of San Quentin has always made it high risk, but it earned the title of  “number one outbreak” after a transfer from Chino’s California Institution for Men (CIM), where nine people had already died of the virus. CDCR officials transferred 121 people—and the virus—to San Quentin on May 30th. Soon after, in June, the CDCR refused two more offers for free testing (from the Berkeley institute again, and another lab run by the University of California, San Francisco). By the end of the month, nearly one third of the prison’s population had COVID. 

After public outcry, the CDCR admitted that the transfer was a bad idea. But for organizers, the admission means little; the decision to transfer in the first place showed how recklessly the CDCR treats the health and safety of prisoners.

“You do not experiment with people’s lives. And that’s exactly what they were doing,” said Alice*, a founder of Unite Against CDCR, a grassroots organization of loved ones of those currently inside. (Unite Against CDCR’s members are anonymous because they fear retaliation against their family and friends.)  

The state’s experiment has had grave consequences. Of the about 3,000 people imprisoned at San Quentin, 2,264—about three-fourths—have been infected with the virus. 

“It just boils down to too many people in prison, this idea for a long time in California and probably throughout the U.S. that if you’re in prison, you’re somehow not a full human, so therefore you’re not really entitled to real medical care, and we’re not going to invest in it,” Hartman said. 

There is (and was), a solution of course, just not one seriously contemplated by the state. Medical officials told the state in back June that decarceration was the only way to prevent what was already a “rapidly evolving” crisis from developing into a “massive, uncontrollable outbreak (if it is not too late already).”

Those officials visited San Quentin on June 13th. They released a damning report two days later that urged the CDCR to reduce the prison population by 50 percent—ideally more. After detailing the “extremely dangerous” conditions and “profoundly inadequate” resources to address the outbreak inside, they warned that “there are simply too few options for safe quarantine at San Quentin without prioritizing population reduction through release.” 

The officials were also shocked that prisoners over 60, some with only weeks left on their sentences, had not yet been released. They indicted the state’s failure to release them as not only illogical, but cruel. “It is inconceivable,” they wrote, “that [those over 60] are still in this dangerous environment.”

Months later, on October 20th, the Court of Appeals in California ordered the CDCR to remove Ivan Von Staich—a 64 year-old prisoner with a bullet-damaged left lung—from San Quentin. Von Staich had applied to leave San Quentin after testing positive for COVID-19, but the CDCR denied him. The court, relying heavily on the June 15th report, found the CDCR in violation of the 8th Amendment rights of Von Staich and all prisoners at San Quentin. It also found that San Quentin Warden Ron Broomfield and the CDCR “have acted with deliberate indifference” to the lives of prisoners. Justice Kline, who wrote the court opinion, called the outbreak “the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history.” The court ordered the CDCR to follow the public health officials’ recommendations and said that the reduction of San Quentin’s population to 50 percent capacity is “the minimum necessary.” It allowed for the population reduction to be achieved through expedited releases and/or transfers. 

The court’s ruling is promising. But based on the CDCR’s track record, it’s highly unlikely that it will be adequately fulfilled. As of November 5th, the CDCR had not released a single person from San Quentin to comply with the ruling. What’s more, it has previously failed to satisfy a court’s mandate to end cruel and unusual punishment. In 2002, California’s prison healthcare system was found to be in violation of the 8th Amendment, after years of prisoners dying due to inadequate medical care. The CDCR was ordered to provide adequate care and release between 38,000 and 46,000 prisoners. In 2005, after it had failed to comply for three years, the CDCR’s healthcare system was put under a federal receivership (wherein a “receiver” manages its operations and reports to the federal court, not the governor). The current federal receiver, Clark Kelso, is the one who asked public health officials to visit San Quentin in the first place after he had authorized the transfer from CIM. 

Community organizers in and outside of San Quentin—the #StopSQOutbreak coalition—have been demanding mass releases long before the court’s decision. Now, they are doubling down on the need to release people, instead of just transferring them to other prisons (which only serves to spread the virus). The #StopSQOutbreak’s demands, released on June 16th, included stopping transfers and providing adequate testing and PPE for prisoners. But their first priority was reaching that 50 percent mark by letting people go.  

In their statement applauding the court’s ruling, the coalition urged the CDCR “to avoid making mass transfers and repeating the deadly mistake that caused the catastrophic outbreak among those held at San Quentin and led to the tragic loss of 28 lives at the prison in just four months.” 

Hartman put it more vividly: “You’re not going to get a whole pound of flesh out of [prisoners], you’re only going to get a half pound, whatever. But just let them go.” 

Organizers are pushing for releases beyond San Quentin, too. The California Coalition for Women’s Prisoners (CCWP) started the Care Not Cages campaign after the first outbreak at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in April. They are calling on Governor Newsom to grant clemency and emergency releases for medically vulnerable people in women’s prisons. 

Governor Newsom and the CDCR have ignored the demands. Early in the pandemic, they announced an accelerated release of 3,500 people, but that’s the number of prisoners released on average per month in non-pandemic times. In mid-June, the CDCR began setting up tents as “quarantine options” and mandated that any prisoner scheduled to transfer to a different facility must have tested negative for COVID-19 within seven days of transfer. However, with too little space between beds and too much time between tests, the measures failed to stop the spread.

After pressure from the campaigns—including marches on Sacramento, rallies outside San Quentin and other prisons, and regular press conferences by organizers—the CDCR committed to an “expedited release plan,” under which it defined three release programs: “180-day,” for people with less than that amount left on their sentences, “one-year,” for the same, and “high-risk medical.” A person imprisoned for a “violent crime” could not be eligible for either of the first two categories, no matter how much time they have served. People imprisoned for life without parole or on death row were immediately disqualified for “high-risk medical.” The purpose of the “high risk” category was to target those over 65 for release, but the carve-outs almost swallowed the plan, since many elderly people are serving life sentences. 

This limitation is no accident—the CDCR consistently relies on the manufactured distinction between “violent” and “nonviolent” prisoners, especially when forced to admit death on its watch. “Violent” crime is not consistently crime that causes the most harm (California’s definition includes robbery, carjacking, and certain types of burglary). Rather, it’s based on an image of who society deems dangerous, despite the fact that “violent offenders” have the lowest recidivism rates, and are often victims of violence themselves. If the state treats all prisoners as sub-human, it certainly treats those it categorizes as “violent” as an even lower class. 

When Scott Thomas Erskine, 57, and Manuel Machado Alvarez, 59, died of COVID in early July, the CDCR’s email subject line was harrowing: “Condemned inmates Erskine and Alvarez die.” The sparse, clinical press release detailed Erskine and Alvarez’s time on death row and their respective crimes. It also tiptoed around their COVID diagnoses: both died “from what appear to be complications related to COVID-19.” 

Correctional officer Danny Mendoza, 53, was subject to no such equivocation. Officer Mendoza died after he “had recently tested positive for the coronavirus” and Ralph Diaz, CDCR Secretary, was “deeply saddened,” expressing his sympathies for Mendoza’s family. The statement on Erskine and Alvarez contained no mention of friends and family. Either they had none, or Diaz’s condolences did not extend to them. (Diaz announced his retirement in August.) 

The October appeals court decision called the CDCR’s exclusion of “lifers” and “violent offenders” “difficult to defend, given their low risk for future violence and high risk of infection and serious illness from the virus.” The recklessness of forcing people to live in a place where social distancing is impossible, Justice Kline wrote, “is aggravated by [the CDCR’s] refusal to consider the expedited release, or transfer, of prisoners who are serving time for violent offenses but who have aged out of a propensity for violence.” 

Indeed, the majority of California’s prison population—and the majority of medically vulnerable prisoners—are imprisoned for “violent” crimes. And, as a University of Michigan legal analysis of recidivism notes, “the population imprisoned for violent offenses also exhibits sharper demographic disparities than the general prison population across both age and race.” Therefore, any measure that excludes “violent offenders” not only “deeply undermines” its own effectiveness, but also exacerbates the inequality of the prison system. 

If Newsom and the CDCR’s goal is to prevent death, that would mean releasing those most at risk for COVID, including people whom the state has deemed violent. Yet, there is no evidence that prevention of death is their goal. Instead, they withhold intervention on the basis of an individual’s past crimes—condemning them twice.

“You’re not the higher universe. You’re not God. You’re not meant to be making those decisions,” Casillas said.

In July, the CDCR predicted that 8,000 people would be released under the expedited plan. Not only has it fallen short of that number, but as of November 5, it has cut two of the three original release programs. Both “high-risk medical” and “one-year” programs are no longer in effect. And, even while they were active, they had little impact: out of the 6,599 people who qualified as “high medical risk,” the CDCR approved the release of fewer than 50. Even if it had met its goal, 8,000 released prisoners would have been a drop in the bucket for a system that imprisons roughly 117,000. But clearly, the CDCR had no intention to significantly decrease its prison population—making the plan seem far more like a P.R. stunt than a public health intervention. 

Mary,  another pseudonymous Unite Against CDCR co-founder, put it frankly: “They went ahead and put out this big ol’ number just to quiet the people that were making noise, because that’s all they want.”

Unlike the majority of the release plan, the COVID crisis in California prisons is still ongoing. In order to actually address that crisis, the state has to want to do more than quiet its critics: it has to care about prisoners’ lives more than it fears the political costs of letting them go. 

“That 50 percent would include the people that they fear releasing. And they fear it because of political safety,” Melendez said. “They just win votes with fear, and say that ‘I didn’t do this thing that scares you.’”

The logical conclusion of the state’s actions and inactions is that there is no way to adequately address COVID without a far deeper reckoning within a system that does not value human life. By daring to suggest that it is better to let people out of prison than to let them die, organizers are simultaneously tackling the immediate crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic and the long-term crisis of mass incarceration. 

For Melendez, the pandemic response, like the death penalty, like California’s “astronomical sentences,” like life without parole, like police aggression, is one of many humanity-stripping mechanisms of the carceral state, or the institutions of the criminal justice system and the ideologies, practices, and structures of “punitive orientations to difference.” 

“It’s another branch of the same tree,” Melendez said. “As we’ve seen lately with the uprising, that tree is rotten to its core, to its roots, and someone needs to uproot that whole thing and start new.”

The failed pandemic response is the product of a system working exactly as intended. The carceral state is a punitive entity. The punishment it levies on individuals and communities is to designate them as subhuman. The step from that designation to mass death is not as far as one might think—if society has already agreed that you deserve to spend your life in a cage, it has already agreed that your life is not worth protecting, from disease or anything else. 

What organizers are doing, therefore, goes much deeper than preventing the spread of COVID within prisons. They are undermining the horror that the state has us all implicitly endorsing, and working towards a world in which all people have not only life, but dignity. 

California’s approach to COVID-19 in prisons, rather than a mere “mishandling,” is the most recent iteration of a particular long-term campaign of state violence. This campaign has often taken the form of tough-on-crime policies. The now infamous Three Strikes law, signed in 1994 by Governor Pete Wilson and enforced for years by notoriously anti-release Attorney General Kamala Harris, is responsible for exponentially increasing the amount of time people spend in prison. In 2004, about 26 percent of the total prison population in California was serving time because of it. Currently, over 45 percent of prisoners serving life sentences under the Three Strikes law are Black (compared to 6.5 percent of Californians.) 

California’s criminal justice system and its various limbs keep some communities over-policed and imprisoned, while maintaining a separate class of people with whom they barely interact. In L.A. county, Black people are incarcerated at 13 times the rate of white people.  

Ashley of Unite Against CDCR has one main reaction to this rampant systemic racism.

“Fuck this whole system that has for decades kept whole entire communities incarcerated,” she said. “If you talk to anybody [in many parts] of Los Angeles, every single person will be either a family member, or a cousin, or a neighbor of someone who is inside currently. When people say, if you want to see how a society treats its people, look inside its prisons, it’s not just in the prison—let’s look at who is going in the prison.” 

The carceral state, with its obsession with punishment, not only concentrates imprisonment among those most marginalized, it also precludes the possibility of genuine accountability, which Melendez, Mary, and Hartman all emphasized is crucial to their vision for a better world. 

“People should be held accountable. But the system of accountability we have is ‘make people suffer.’ No one gains out of that system, they really don’t. Society doesn’t gain, survivors of crime don’t gain, the people in prison obviously don’t gain, their families, their communities—it’s kind of a lose lose lose lose proposition,” Hartman said. 

The type of organizing that Hartman supports and that Melendez, Gibson, and Unite Against CDCR practice is premised on the notion that through accountability, people can and do grow. 

“The idea that someone who does X at one point in their life is that forever is wrong, factually wrong. And it’s also a terrible way of running things, because it diminishes all human beings,” Hartman said. “We’re all capable of being better than our worst selves.”

Hartman himself exemplifies this notion.  

“I was a serious violent offender, by their definition. I was 19 years old, I killed a man named Thomas Allen Fellows in a fist fight. I was wrong, period,” he said. “I feel terrible about it. I always will. However, I’m not that same person. I’m 59 years old … I’ve been clean and sober for 31 years. I’ve done tremendous work on myself to become a better human being. I live a nonviolent life. I’m proud of that.”

Melendez sees the working group he runs as part of making his “living amends.” In his working group, which includes both perpetrators and survivors of violence, he’s seen “a lot more compassion than bloodlust.” The relationship between harmer and harmed, he says, is often fluid. 

“We also are survivors of the traumas that led us to these ways of thinking and these ways of being, and also just survivors of violence. I myself, I lost a brother to gun violence, gang violence, you know, and I work with the survivors and we connect on that. That’s something I feel like needs to be highlighted more in the media. It’s false, the way that they portray us and pit us against each other,” Phil said. 

Alice sees her mother-in-law as a perfect example of the falsehood of this two-sides, perpetrators versus victims narrative. Alice’s husband has been incarcerated for 24 years. His brother, meanwhile, was killed in a drive-by shooting at age 17. Alice’s mother-in-law shares her story and facilitates community dialogues in prisons. 

“Instead of holding that anger … [she] shows the impact after the fact. Because, you know, when people make these mistakes and do this stuff, they only see what happens in that moment. They don’t know what happens in the community after the fact. And that’s healing to me, and I’m gonna use her quote, because it’s true: healed people heal people. And this is her healing,” Alice said. 

Under the current system, though, healing is elusive. Jonathan Chiu, who was released from San Quentin amid the pandemic, doesn’t feel like healing is available to him, or to many others. 

“We hope that one day we can get to the point where there could be restorative justice done for us,” he said. “But what we’re doing as a society, by keeping them inside incarcerated when there’s a global pandemic, a disease that literally kills people … I don’t know if there’s going to be anybody that’s going to find any healing, knowing that people are suffering inside, being tortured and dying inside prison.”

Chiu, who helps run the social media account Voices of San Quentin which publishes testimonies from people inside, knows that his experience is far from an outlier. Rather, it is representative of how the carceral system individualizes both harm and healing, and obscures human interconnectedness. For Hartman, there’s no such thing as harming one individual. 

“There was a man that I killed. And he had a family …  And you think, ‘okay well that’s it.’ But that isn’t it. There’s this ever-expanding circle that goes out. And it’s the same when you put someone in prison. Who is harmed? Is it the person in prison, or is it just their family? Or is it an ever-expanding circle? Including the cops, including the politicians that have to deal with these crazy laws. It never ends. It goes out to everyone. So the problem is, if you have a system that’s based on creating harm and making people hurt, you’re hurting everybody at some level,” he said.  

Focusing on the individual, then, displaces the violence of the system itself. Or, as long-time prison abolitionist Angela Davis once put it, “prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings.” 

How do we begin to heal from the violence? According to every organizer we talked to, by investing in the community and bringing people home. 

“That’s where this money needs to be going, it needs to be going into our communities, and it needs to start going into our healthcare system and our education system and it needs to start going into true public safety, and not just locking somebody up and throwing away the key, and saying, ‘you know what, these people are no longer deemed fit for society.’ They are,” Gibson said.   

In other words, we need to replace institutions that punish with ones that care. That could and should look like many things: building public health infrastructure so the next pandemic is not as deadly; protecting the environment so the next wildfire is generative, not destructive; answering the calls of people in the streets demanding healthcare, housing, and dignity. 

“And so, abolition …  we’ll stand on it,” Gibson said. “When people say, ‘oh, but you don’t really mean defund the police,’ or ‘you don’t really mean the abolition of prisons.’ Yeah we do. We absolutely mean that.”

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