‘They Have Nowhere To Run’: Inmate Families, Advocates Push for Prisoner Release as California Wildfires Engulf State
Jerri-Lynn here. I share this Common Dreams post on inmates who are currently still confined to prisons that lie directly in the path of California wildfires for two reasons. First, there’s been far too little attention devoted to the plight of inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And second, I thought the commentariat might appreciate a chance to discuss the wildfires raging across California. They’re very much at the top of my mind, especially after telephone calls to two close friends from my MIT days who’ve settled and made their lives in California. They’e each located in places where they are at least at present safe, but they both attested to the horrible air quality. I also checked in via messages with another close friend who although he no longer lives there, has family who does, and hails from Atascadero.
I should point out one reason the wildfires are raging out of control is that in the past California has relied heavily on prison labor to fight its fires. Now, some prisoners have been furloughed, whereas others are either sick or isolated due to COVID-19 outbreaks at their facilities, so they cannot fight the current fires.
Yes we’re talking inmates. Who’ve been sentenced according to our present legal procedures to serve time to pay their debt to society. But most of them were not sentenced to death. And even those who were would not have been executed using a lethal pathogen, nor smothered nor burned to death. For another news report, please look at this Mercury News link: ‘No one deserves conditions like this’: Fires present health risks, prompt pleas to evacuate nearby state prisons. And for some of Naked Capitalism’s previous coverage, see here and here.
By Lisa Newcomb, staff writer at Common Dreams. Originally published at Common Dreams
As wildfires rage in California, advocates are pushing for Gov. Gavin Newsom to evacuate prisons in the line of the fires.
“It’s disaster on top of disaster on top of disaster,” Kirsten Roehler, whose 78-year-old father, Fred Roehler, is imprisoned in Lancaster, California, toldThe Guardian.
The 2020 wildfire season is especially difficult for multiple reasons, including record high temperatures and extreme weather and, of course, Covid-19.
Flames burned through more than 770,000 acres in the Golden State within just one week, the Washington Post reported Friday, leaving five people dead and air quality continually decreasing. Some of the state’s prisons are located in areas under evacuation orders, including the California Medical Facility (CMF) and Solano State Prison, which are outside of Vacaville, California.
“They are breathing in fire and smoke, and they have nowhere to run,” Sophia Murillo, 39, whose brother is incarcerated at CMF in Vacaville told The Guardian. “Everyone has evacuated but they were left there in prison. Are they going to wait until the last minute to get them out?”
Civil rights advocates have called on the governor to release offenders since the Covid-19 outbreak began ravaging prison populations and staff throughout the United States. Newsom and other governors have released thousands of prisoners in light of the pandemic, but with the fires raging closer and closer to physical prison structures, the calls for more action are growing.
In Vacaville, instead of releasing the nonviolent inmates, officials moved 80 prisoners “to sleep in outdoor tents instead of indoor cells” in a move meant to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in its facility, The Guardian reported. But the wildfires have damaged air quality, prompting authorities to move the inmates back inside.
“I’m furious at the incompetence and severe inhumanity of this,” Kate Chatfield, policy director with the Justice Collaborative, a group that fights mass incarceration, told The Guardian. “Covid is allowed to rage through the prison system and kill people, and then they have tent hospitals set up … and now with wildfires, they take down the tents and put these people back in the Covid-infected building?”
As wildfires burn and neighborhoods evacuate, California prison officials have declined to evacuate Solano State Prison in Vacaville. Instead, they will reportedly give incarcerated people N95 masks to protect against poor air quality. https://t.co/CBKUvS2ddk
— The Appeal (@theappeal) August 20, 2020
In lieu of evacuating the Solano State Prison, authorities Thursday issued N95 masks to inmates and staff. Aaron Francis, a spokesman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), told the Guardian Thursday that officials were monitoring the Vacaville fires but that the two prisons were “not in immediate danger” and had no current orders to evacuate.
“It shouldn’t come down to [Covid-19], uncontrollable fires, earthquakes, or other major crises for us to start releasing people,” Adbab Khan, founder of Re:Store Justice, a prisoner advocacy organization tweeted Friday. “Mass incarceration is the disaster.”