Travel Will coronavirus pandemic free California prisoners? Gavin Newsom says no
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SACRAMENTO — California has long struggled with an overburdened prison system, crowding inmates into lockups that were designed to hold tens of thousands fewer people. Now activists are sounding the alarm that those cramped conditions could foment an explosion of the coronavirus.
After urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to release thousands of the oldest and most medically vulnerable inmates, lawyers filed an emergency motion last week asking federal judges to intervene.
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Scott Kernan, a former secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation under Gov. Jerry Brown, said the politics of criminal justice are getting in the way of state officials acting swiftly. Their opportunity to prevent a coronavirus outbreak among the prison population may have passed, he said.
“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, and just how bad it’s going to get,” Kernan said. “The propensity for violence and for problems to occur in the system is primed when everybody is scared. And everybody is scared.”
California prisonsthree inmates and 17 staff members across the state have tested positive for the coronavirus.
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The corrections department said it was deep-cleaning common areas and quarantining inmates with symptoms. Regular family visits have been canceled and transfers between prisons limited. On Friday, the department began temperature screening everyone who enters prisons, including employees.
Newsom said the “very strong isolation protocols” and other steps his administration has taken are sufficient. He rejected the idea of discharging large numbers of prisoners early, saying at a March 23 news conference that it could exacerbate problems such as homelessness and the strain on the health care system if inmates can’t find jobs or build new lives as the economy grinds to a halt.
“I have no interest, and I want to make this crystal clear, in releasing violent criminals from our system, and I won’t use a crisis as an excuse to create another crisis,” Newsom said. “That’s not the way we will go about this. We will do it in a very deliberative way.”
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He signed anthe next day suspending prison intake for 30 days and directing that people convicted of felonies continue to be held in local jails instead. The order also temporarily halted parole hearings while a videoconferencing alternative could be set up.
Kate Chatfield, a senior policy adviser for the criminal justice advocacy group the Justice Collaborative, said Newsom’s approach does not resolve the fundamental problem of California’s overcrowded prisons.
A decade after a federal court ordered California toto less than 137.5% of capacity, the state is still barely under that cap. There are more than 114,000 people housed in its main prisons, which were designed for about 85,000.
Many inmates live in dormitories, stacked in bunk beds and sharing five toilets for 100 people, Chatfield said. Guards and other staffers are also entering the prisons every day, potentially bringing the virus in with them or back out to their families.
If someone gets the coronavirus, it will spread “like wildfire,” she said. “Social distancing is impossible.”
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Hand sanitizer is banned for inmates because of the alcohol content, so Laila Aziz sent extra soap, shampoo and laundry detergent to her husband, who is incarcerated in Lassen County for being an accomplice to a murder during a robbery. She said he told her that prisoners were fashioning masks out of beanies, T-shirts and old underwear to protect themselves.
“They feel as though they are not considered human, so if anything goes wrong, they are going to be left to die,” said Aziz, who is also the program director for a local criminal justice advocacy group in San Diego.
Prisons recently began installing hand sanitizer stations in dining halls, according to the corrections department.
Chatfield organized more than two dozen groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of California, to sign atwo weeks ago calling on Newsom to release inmates over age 60 and those with chronic illnesses to parole supervision, because they at are higher risk of complications from the coronavirus. They said the state could also open space in prisons by immediately releasing anyone with a sentence ending this year or in 2021.
Chatfield likened Newsom’s comment about not releasing violent criminals to “1990s crime panic talk.” Nearly 40,000 people cycle out of the prison system every year as they reach the end of their sentences, and advocates simply want Newsom to move faster to release those at lowest risk of re-offending, she said.
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A few states are taking steps to reduce their inmate populations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including, which planned to expedite the placement of 700 prisoners already approved for parole or work release. But in California, the action has largely been at the local level.
Alameda Countythis month to nearly 250 inmates, while a judge authorized the release of 26 detainees in San Francisco. The Los Angeles County sheriff’s Department last week that it had released 1,700 inmates from county jails who had less than 30 days left to serve or were being held on bail of less than $50,000.
The three-judge panel that first ordered the population cap on California prisons in 2009 recently convened a task force of state officials and advocates to address the coronavirus response. Despite daily meetings for hours by phone, the conversations have largely broken down, said Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office advocacy group.
“They listen and we talk to them, but it’s not a negotiation. It’s a one-way street,” said Specter, who is involved in a pair of lawsuits against the state seeking better mental health and medical resources for prisoners.
He and nearly a dozen other attorneys filed anWednesday asking the federal judges to require further inmate releases, because “prison walls cannot stop the spread of pandemic disease.” The state’s response is due Monday.
The lawyers argued that while Newsom’s 30-day intake freeze was a good step, that will reduce the prison population by only a few thousand people, far less than needed.
Specter said they were seeking between 10,000 and 15,000 releases, though he added that it was urgent to get prisons below 100% capacity so there is room to move people around.
Nina Salarno Besselman, president of the victim advocacy group Crime Victims United, said it was a “bogus argument” and activists were doing a disservice to inmates, who would have limited housing options and no job prospects if they are released while millions of people are being laid off. Facing financial stresses, they would be more likely to turn back to crime to survive, she said, especially while law enforcement is too focused on the coronavirus crisis to provide the usual parole oversight.
“We really are throwing them to the wolves,” she said. “The best place they can be right now is in the state prison where they have access to medical care.”
Alexei Koseff is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email:Twitter:
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