COVID-19 and the California Prison Crisis: 24th San Quentin Inmate Dies Last Friday
By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
The 24th inmate from San Quentin State Prison died Friday from COVID-19 complications, part of the unfolding national prison apocalypse.
San Quentin has the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases in the country, with a third of inmates and staff members -about 2500 people – testing positive.
As reported by The Mercury News:
The inmate is the 52nd in the state prison system to die from complications of the virus, according to the state’s tracker. The prisons have confirmed 8,665 cases of the virus in the system, including 1,007 over the past two weeks.
The initial outbreak at San Quentin seems to be a direct consequence of California’s prisoner transfer policy, according to The Guardian, San Quentin faces California’s deadliest prison outbreak after latest Covid fatalities:
The outbreak at San Quentin began after a late-May transfer of 121 people whom officials deemed to be at high risk of contracting and becoming seriously ill from Covid-19, from the California Institution for Men in Chino. Before the transfer San Quentin had zero positive cases; within four weeks of the move, it had reached almost 1,200 cases.
First Person Account from Inside San Quentin
Let me turn over the floor to Rahsaan Thomas, a San Quentin inmate, writing in Inside, I’ve served 19 years in San Quentin prison and I just got diagnosed with COVID-19. Where is the justice?:
The corrections officers aren’t good at telling us whether we’re positive. For some people, the only hint has been when an officer keys your door, meaning you’re forced to stay in your cell while everyone else goes to chow. When they’re done, you pick up your tray or sack lunch with everyone else who tested positive. They don’t clean the railings or anything between groups of people with positive cases and negative cases. Everyone mingles in the same space, one after the other.
Everyone who lives in North Block will have COVID-19 sooner or later. It’s up to the disease whether we live or die because the system won’t release people who committed violent crimes, and that’s almost all of us in the cell blocks.
No emergency consideration is being given for the fact that some of us haven’t committed another violent crime in 20 years and, therefore, aren’t violent anymore.
Thomas notes that releasing prisoners is one way to stem the pandemic. Yet despite the crisis facing the state, California has been slow to furlough some inmates:
They could have released 900 people from San Quentin without a crime spree. For people who have committed violent crimes and served life sentences, the recidivism rate is dramatically low, less than 2%, according to studies, and none for a new violent crime.
Most people age out of crime after 40. Hell, a lot of these “menaces to society” in here are gray-haired old men on walkers and canes. We’re the safest group to release, but I guess “violent criminal” is the new dog-whistle word for Blacks. We get arrested more for violent crimes than other races, so despite the lowest recidivism rates, the doors remain closed to those who have committed violent crimes even during a freaking deadly pandemic.
Yeah, there are some people who aren’t ready, some who may never be ready to safely release. But there are more than 3,200 people here, of which I firmly believe we can squeeze a list of 900 people to release without endangering the public. Some would even improve society.
And don’t tell me COVID-19 is a natural disaster and not the system’s fault. Out there in the world, yeah. But in prison, you can’t get the virus unless someone brings it in. In our case, they transferred the virus here from another prison. Then they didn’t learn and transferred it from here to another prison — instead of letting people go.
Thomas faces up squarely to what he has done and does not succumb to maudlin self-pity, but asks:
As horrible as I was years ago, I killed one person. Now 22 people have died in my prison alone from this COVID-19 fiasco.
And you call me violent?
Now, if Thomas is correct – and we have no reason to assume he’s lying – California hasn’t taken sufficient precautions to sanitize the prison nor to maintain proper social distancing. The number of positive cases certainly suggests that is the case. And yes, I understand this is San Quentin, not Club Med- although I fail to see why paying one’s debt to society means forfeiting one’s humanity. Scandinavian prisons, I understand, are nowhere near as brutal – nor I would guess, as unsafe at the moment.
California’s lack of prevention went so far as to impede distribution of donated hand sanitiser intended to make inmates safer. According to KTVU, Why San Quentin didn’t hand out rapper E-40’s hand sanitizer donation:
Rapper E-40 made headlines in May when he said he planned to donate 1,000 gallons of hand sanitizer to San Quentin and Lompoc prisoners, hoping the cleaning solution would help disinfect skin and surfaces in crowded cells.
But KTVU has learned that the hand sanitizer has not made it outside of its boxes and certainly not into the hands of incarcerated people, at least, not at San Quentin.
In an email, California Department of Corrections spokeswoman Dana Simas said while the prison system appreciates the community’s desire to donate items to help address COVID-19, there are “detailed procedures for accepting donations that are laid out by department and California state government policies.”
She wrote that San Quentin State Prison “still has the items, but the institution has received ample donations in addition to the hand sanitizer being produced by the California Prison Industry Authority that is being provided to both staff and in the incarcerated population statewide.”
Without providing details, Simas added: “Unfortunately, the donation was not submitted in accordance with these policies.”
Simas did provide a general sheet of information that San Quentin administrators must consider before accepting donations. One criteria is that prison officials must “consider the perception of the acceptance to other suppliers. How does the department remain fair and impartial if a decision is eventually made to solicit the product?”
Indeed. That’s certainly one California bureacrat’s definition of fairness. Still, there’s only speculation so far as to why the hand sanitiser has not yet found its way to San Quentin inmates. KTVU nonetheless suggests:
Since the exact details of why E-40’s donation was not accepted, the internet speculated: It’s probably because of the alcohol in the sanitizer.
E-40 and a representative from Tom’s Town distillery told KTVU on Thursday that this was the first they are hearing of this and they are genuinely confused as to why the why prison says their sanitizer doesn’t comply. The alcohol in the sanitizer, they pointed out, is also rubbing alcohol, not the kind you drink.
When E-40 first came up with the idea of donating the hand sanitizer, he said he could only imagine the prisoners’ anxiety, living in such tight quarters with limited social distancing, and he wanted to do something to help.
As of this week, 51 incarcerated people have died in California prisons.
Both the rapper and the company said they worked closely with government and prison officials to make sure their sanitizer met FDA and state correctional standards and guidelines. They also said they filled out the necessary paperwork that they were given.
E-40 said he hopes to get more answers as to what happened so that his gift can get into the hands of those who need it most right now.
His intention from the beginning, he said, was to do some good in the world and to save lives.
Some Context: Insight from Michele Deitch, Prison Expert at the LBJ School of Public Affairs/Univeisity of Texas School of Law
Now, the San Quentin outbreak is only one of many – albeit the worst – unfolding at prisons throughout the country. And many of these infections and subsequent deaths were completely preventable, if prison authorities heeded the advice of prison experts such as my old friend, Michele Deitch, who holds a joint appointment at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs and the University of Texas School of Law.
When we were at Oxford together back during the Thatcher years, Michele was already studying prisons and prisoners. I recently reconnected with her at a wedding in January and last featured her thoughts in an interview I posted in March, Prisons and the COVID-19 Pandemic: What Must Be Done NOW to Prevent Catastrophe.
Alas, needless to say, California – and most of the rest of the country, for that matter, failed to follow Michele’s prescient advice , even though similar recommendations were amplified and repeated other prison experts.
“California’s decision to transfer infected prisoners into San Quentin is unfathomable—it put so many vulnerable individuals, both incarcerated people and staff, at risk.,” said Deitch. “And we are now seeing the entirely predictable and tragic consequences of that terrible decision. It is hard to imagine the sheer terror and anxiety that people housed in San Quentin must feel, since they are without any control over their environment nor do they have any ability to protect themselves from this virus.”
Michele notes that California has finally taking additional steps to protect vulnerable inmates, by agreeing to their early release. But these actions should have happened far earlier.
“California has finally relented and agreed to expedite the parole release dates for roughly 18,000 people. This is something that should have happened ages ago, long before the virus was so widespread, when experts were saying that the situation was a disaster in the making,” said Deitch.
“Now, the agency is faced with the challenges of releasing many people who either have or have been exposed to the virus,” she continued. “Service providers are scrambling to help them find safe housing and sort out their re-entry needs, which is always difficult and exponentially more difficult during a pandemic.”
Especially as landlords start evicting people, in search of higher rents – which returning inmates are unlikely to be able to pay.
In addition, the Guardian reports;
As of Tuesday morning, the state prison system had seen 8,362 positive cases in total since late March, 6,720 of which have been marked as “resolved”, according to the state prison coronavirus reporting tool. Now that the number of active cases has decreased, Michael Bien, an attorney who has long fought to reduce prison populations, says that the state must start to re-establish programs that were paused to stop the spread of Covid. Prisons should allow people to earn credits that can decrease their sentences and establish remote psychiatry for those who need it, he said.
“There has been some good news, but the control they achieved is at the cost of totally locking down prisons and stopping transfers and rehabilitative groups. That is not a solution,” Bien said. “If this continues, people are gonna lose whatever rehabilitation they’ve had, and the mental health of patients will worsen.
These observations echo points made by Michele in her March interview with me.
California’s Specific Response to Queries Regarding San Quentin Deaths
In the face of such a catastrophe at San Quentin, what else does California do? Why, attempt to cover it up, naturally:. According to KTVU again, this time in 24th San Quentin inmate dies of COVID-19 as mystery shrouds most IDs:
The person died Thursday and no additional information will be given out “to protect individual medical privacy,” the agency said, though a First Amendment lawyer said keeping the names private violates California law.
Why does this remind me of CalPERS – where IIRC the staff routinely seeks to suppress the disclosure of information as clearly mandated under California law? (See, as only one of numerous examples, Yves’s latest take on CalPERS, which if you haven’t seen it already, is well worth a read, CalPERS Chief Investment Officer Ben Meng Resigns Following Our Exposing His False, Felonious Financial Disclosure Filings and Private Equity Conflicts of Interest).
Over to KTVU, in the Mystery Shrouds Most IDs link, again:
On top of that, the Department of Corrections has been releasing some of the names, pictures and brief criminal histories of certain incarcerated people — only those who are on Death Row.
When asked why that is, prison spokeswoman Dana Simas said in an email: “CDCR has, for decades, issued a press release in the event a condemned inmate dies within our custody, regardless of COVID. You can see the list of condemned inmates who have died within our custody here. We won’t be providing any further information on those not identified as condemned. Thank you.”
But David Snyder, an attorney with the First Amendment Coalition, said that dead people do not have a right to privacy, and if the CDCR is claiming a privacy exemption allows them to withhold those names, “they are wrong.”
Snyder added that there is a “high public interest in those who have died of COVID at San Quentin,” partly because of the coronavirus outbreaks there and partly because they are “on the public radar,” meaning they are people who were convicted of crimes by public officials acting in the name of the public.”
KTVU has been trying to learn the names of all the prisoners who have died of coronavirus through other government channels as well as by reaching out to family members and friends.
Two of those men are: Melford Henson, 65, who died of coronavirus on May 6 at the California Institution for Men in Chino and Carlos Oropeza Canez, 60, who died of coronavirus at Avenal State Prison on June 20.
County coroners also should have the names of those who died.
In Marin County, just four of the 23 San Quentin coronavirus cases were overseen at the coroner’s office there, according to Sheriff Chief Deputy Roger Fielding. It’s unclear where this week’s death will be investigated. Fielding released the names of those who died in his jurisdiction. Three were on Death Row and their names had already been released. The name of the fourth person is John Stevens, 72, who died of coronavirus on July 14 at San Quentin.
The rest of the incarcerated San Quentin people died at hospitals in other counties, so the coroners in Alameda County, San Mate and San Francisco counties are reviewing their deaths. KTVU has not yet been able to track down any of these death reports.
While we may not know their names, at least some – if not all – of these men died as a result of California’s misguided policy of transferring COVID-19 prisoners to San Quentin. And similarly, others will get sick or die because San Quentin inmates were transferred onward to other California state prisons.
No one denies these men were convicted of committing crimes and for that they are being duly punished. But many now dead or diseased inmates were not sentenced to death for their convictions. And even for those who were so sentenced – but COVID-19 took instead – the death penalty was never supposed to be exacted like this. Doesn’t the 8th Amendment have something to say about cruel and unusual punishment?
I post these videos in memory of my father, Harry Scofield, who would have turned 90 on the 12th had he not died in 2000. He was a die-hard Johnny Cash fan and I remember listening to Cash recordings with him..
From Cash’s live ’69 concert at San Quentin.