‘People are terrified’: a coronavirus surge across California’s prisons renews calls for releases

Nine months since the emergence of the coronavirus, every one of California’s 35 state prisons is battling cases, a grim milestone in the state’s epidemic.

California’s prison system has seen a system-wide rise in Covid-19 infections in past weeks, paralleling the intense recent surge in coronavirus cases across the state. Almost 9,500 people in the state’s prisons have Covid-19, with most of the state’s facilities facing over 100 infections.

The rise in cases across the prison system is sparking renewed calls for the early release of thousands of prisoners at risk of developing serious complications from Covid-19. And it is elevating urgent questions about early vaccine access for people in the system.

“In the last nine months the state had a chance to do the right thing, they didn’t and now people inside are terrified,” said Dr Hadar Aviram, a professor with UC Hastings Law.

‘What if he dies in there?’

Since the start of the pandemic, more than 38,000 people in California’s overcrowded state prison system have tested positive for coronavirus, according to the California department of corrections and rehabilitation’s own count, and at least 114 have died. The virus has spread like wildfire in the overcrowded facilities, and prison authorities have faced criticism for exacerbating its spread through chaotic guidelines and ill-advised prison transfers.

More than a third of all infections have occurred since the beginning of November, marking a dramatic escalation of the humanitarian crisis unfolding behind bars. Alicia Rhoden, who spoke with the Guardian in April about her fears for the health of her husband, Bruce, said he was one of thousands of prisoners to contract the virus in November.

Bruce, who is 62 and is serving the final year of a four-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon in Wasco state prison, suffers from a long list of health issues, including HIV and diabetes. Rhoden said she learned that her husband was sick in early December, almost a month after his original diagnosis. In a letter to his wife, Bruce said he spent nine days in an outside hospital before returning to Wasco and being placed in isolation for five days.

The Guardian contacted CDCR about the Rhodens’ experience. A spokesperson says they cannot comment on anyone’s personal medical information.

With 414 Covid cases at the facility and Bruce now on blood thinners to treat hemorrhaging that has emerged in his leg, Rhoden said she can’t help but wonder, “What if he dies in there?”

As cases in state prisons far exceed those in the rest of California – the case rate for the state’s prison population on 26 December was 390 per 1,000, for Californians in general, it was 53 per 1,000 people – and the death count is on the rise, family members and advocates are putting renewed pressure on state leaders to release thousands of prisoners. Expanded releases, they argue, would both reduce overcrowding and protect medically vulnerable people in the system.

CDCR says it has already released about 18,300 people early this year through pandemic-related relief programs targeting medically-vulnerable prisoners and people with less than a year left on their sentence. But most prisoners serving time for violent offenses are excluded from the measures, drastically limiting the number of people who qualify.

At the height of the pandemic, the number of early releases has slowed significantly. From 21 October to 16 December, 625 people were released early, CDCR data indicates. Releases under the relief program for medically vulnerable prisoners have been limited as well. Since early-July, just 63 people were released under the program solely because they were medically high-risk and just four have gotten medical reprieves from the California governor, Gavin Newsom.

On Monday, Newsom said he is reviewing individual cases on a weekly basis, and vowed to follow protocols such as conducting risk assessments and notifying victims before letting people go. “I simply will not en masse release people without looking individual by individual,” he said. “I respect those who want to bypass protocols but we are moving in a different direction.”

Demonstrators calling for mass prison inmate releases protest outside of Gavin Newsom’s mansion in Fair Oaks, California.
Demonstrators calling for mass prison inmate releases protest outside of Gavin Newsom’s mansion in Fair Oaks, California. Photograph: Daniel Kim/AP

A CDCR spokesperson said that the number of people who were released because of medical vulnerabilities appears low because some fit into multiple categories, like being 180 days or less away from release. But advocates argue the programs simply don’t include enough people.

“I think CDCR believes what they’re doing is reasonable and sufficient,” said James King, a state campaigner for the Ella Baker Center, a San Francisco Bay Area-based social justice nonprofit. “But they’re ignoring the biggest cohort of people who need to be released: lifers who have served 30-40 years. There are some young people who are getting out a few weeks early. But the most vulnerable are still in there fighting tooth and nail via the courts.”

Attorneys and advocates say that political will and the threat of public backlash and scrutiny are the main drivers behind the disqualification of those with certain convictions, even though people over 60 years old and those serving life sentences have the lowest rate of reoffending after release, according to the CDCR’s most recent recidivism report.

“I don’t think there’s another reason to not release them besides political backlash. Some are sex offenders, some are lifers who were convicted of murder and there’s general reluctance of politicians to release these people,” said Donald Specter, the main lawyer in a lawsuit that aims to reduce California’s prison population.

Expanding the criteria for early releases to include people serving long sentences for violent convictions is now at the center of two decades-old lawsuits that seek to eliminate prison overcrowding. An emergency motion, filed by Specter’s law office early in late-March, to speed up a 2011 depopulation was denied.

“The bottom line is: there are still thousands of people who are at very high risk of death trapped in a prison system where there’s no way that they can avoid the virus,” said Specter.

Vaccine debates

Earlier this month, Kirsten Rhoeler’s father, Fred, became one of over 800 people to contract Covid in a California state prison in Los Angeles county. Serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for a 1981 murder conviction, Fred, 78, is ineligible for any of the early release programs. His only path to release would be an intervention from the governor’s office.

“It would be scary if he got Covid while he was out here but it’s terrifying knowing that he’s positive there, and if he gets really sick CDCR would have to take him to a hospital that’s already overrun,” Roehler said. All three of California’s worst hit prisons, including the state prison where Fred is held, are located in counties where the intensive care unit capacity of hospitals is already severely strained.

Meanwhile, lawyers and doctors are imploring California officials to prioritize vaccinations for incarcerated people given the intensity of the outbreaks.

However it is unclear where the majority of incarcerated people fall on California’s priority list. CDCR recently received an allotment of the Covid-19 vaccine and said it plans to dole it out based on the state’s guidelines, which give priority to correctional facility hospitals. Sixty-five employees and incarcerated people in the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, where the state’s most medically needy are housed, have volunteered to be vaccinated, according to Steve Crouch, the director of public employees for the International Union of Operating Engineers, a union that represents prison maintenance and mechanics employees.

Even when the vaccine becomes available to prisoners, Hadar Aviram, a professor with UC Hastings Law, worries many may be reluctant to accept it given the prison system’s track record during the pandemic.

“CDCR has proven that they don’t have people’s health and safety in mind. People call me to say their loved ones in prisons won’t trust that a CDCR doctor with a clear liquid wants the best for them,” Aviram said.

CDCR maintains that it is doing everything it can to keep people healthy while they consider more releases and the vaccine becomes widely available.

But for Elsie Lee, the reluctance to release people with violent offenses, ambiguity around vaccines and the possibility of more dangerous transfers feel like weights hanging over her head.

Lee’s husband, Wilbert, is 50 years old and tested positive for Covid-19 in late-June in San Quentin state prison. With her nonprofit Sistas with Voices, Lee has been organizing protests and letter writing campaigns hoping to convince lawmakers to push through more releases. However, the efforts have left her feeling as though she’s “yelling at a brick wall”.

“We’re screaming and hollering and we feel like we’re chipping at little pieces on a brick wall but it won’t budge,” said Lee. “At this point everyone who can do something is trying to do it.”