Anne Weills Original

Gov. Newsom Made a Cynical Gamble on Prisons During the Pandemic — and Californians Will Pay with Their Lives

The Democratic governor's unwillingness to release prisoners has allowed a viral conflagration which threatens the Bay Area and beyond.

By Anne Weills / Original to Scheerpost

Gavin Newsom, like many California governors before him, seems more interested in protecting a future run for president than the health and safety of the state’s most vulnerable populations, whether they be undocumented residents or prisoners in our state’s sprawling gulag. Being “tough on crime” while preserving a generally liberal reputation is the cynical balancing act. 

This time that means more Californians will die, both inside and outside prison walls, because of Gov. Newsom’s stubborn unwillingness to adequately exert proper control and oversight of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in the midst of a once-a-century global health crisis. History will judge him harshly.

For months since COVID-19 arrived, health officials, lawyers, prisoner families and judges have been warning of a potential nightmare epidemic scenario in the state’s overcrowded prisons if aggressive measures, including paroling or releasing large numbers of nonviolent and elderly prisoners, were not taken. Now, with an explosion of cases spreading across the system, that moment has arrived. 

A month ago, decrepit San Quentin State Prison in Marin County had no known cases of Covid-19, according to an investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle, until a disastrous, shockingly negligent transfer of 121 untested prisoners from the Chino prison, a pandemic hotspot. The move predictably spread the novel coronavirus, first to the general population and then to the 700 or so prisoners crowded into the facility’s Death Row, where a prisoner just died.

As of this writing on June 28, 815 San Quentin inmates have tested positive, according to CDCR, as well as at least 80 staff members, and the numbers are growing by the hour. 

[UPDATE: Over 1000 inmates at San Quentin now have tested positive.]

Apparently unable to learn, CDCR then inexplicably announced another transfer plan, to move approximately 150 men to North Kern State Prison, near Delano. This attempt to compound the crisis was abandoned only after, unsurprisingly, several of the men ticketed for the long bus ride tested positive. 

Such reckless and shameful decisions by Ralph Diaz, the Secretary of CDCR, and his counterpart, J. Clark Kelso, the head of the California Correctional Health Care system, to allow these transfers, as well as inadequate testing, social distancing and other health measures within the system, ultimately fall on Newsom as an unconstitutional human rights abuse and health threat to all of us; prisons, after all, are not bubbles, but rather perfect incubators for the spread of the acceleration of the pandemic.

Prisoners at San Quentin in general population. Photo by Tam Duong Jr./The Pioneer [CSUEB]

We are months into this historic crisis without any significant action to improve the untenable situation. Instead, Newsom has unconvincingly argued that any major reduction in prison population would pose an unacceptable safety risk. More likely, he is unwilling to accept what he sees as a political risk to any future bid to run for president in a country perceived as less liberal than California.

More than 40 advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote Newsom asking him to free medically fragile adults and those over 60, as well as all inmates scheduled to be paroled through next year. These are modest, reasonable expectations of flexibility of the kind that have been undertaken in prison systems throughout the world since the scale of the pandemic has been grasped. 

“There’s no need to release anybody who is dangerous to public safety,” Michael Bien, an attorney representing mentally-disabled prisoners, told the Chronicle. “There are a lot of people who can be released without danger by anyone’s measure.” 

San Quentin, in particular, was always seen as an epidemiological tinderbox. In early June, a team of health experts from UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco warned prison officials they’d need to cut the population of San Quentin in half “to avoid a potentially catastrophic outbreak,” which could have “dire implications” for the greater Bay Area as the prison’s employees would likely spread the disease in their homes and communities. The group called both for the establishment of a field hospital and other immediate changes at the facility.

In fact, this was the last place prisoners should have been transferred: the crumbling prison, opened in 1852, retains ancient cells with bars, not doors, with air flowing openly between higher and lower tiers maximizing the potential spread of any illness. Reports from prisoners state that many staff are not wearing masks and or implementing other standard safety precautions. The prison, which is at 150 percent of capacity, also sits at the crossroads of a megalopolis of nearly 8 million people, staffed by employees who commute home every night throughout the region.

After dozens of deaths and some 5000 positive tests among inmates systemwide, it was not until this incriminating San Quentin episode that Newsom, closing the proverbial barn door, belatedly admitted on June 24 that more prisoners might need to be released. 

Never mind that the state has had over four months to identify those who are elderly, immunocompromised or otherwise at heightened risk of severe Covid-19 symptoms and either release them or find a way to move them to less crowded, hazardous spaces. This reckless disregard for their safety is not just immoral, but also a possible violation of the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment. 

Well-intended Federal judges Jon Tigar and Kimberly Jo Mueller have so far refused to order CDCR to release prisoners, citing the high bar of such a claim, which requires an evidentiary showing of deliberate indifference by CDCR. However, what could be a more compelling case of this than CDCR’s reckless transfers of infected prisoners done without testing, or unwillingness to enforce safety regulations on its own employees? Especially after so much has been learned about the spread of the disease by people not yet showing symptoms, these acts evidence a total disregard for human life, or worse.

Where is our allegedly progressive governor? Why isn’t he properly overseeing CDCR and playing a leadership role in protecting prisoner lives, instead of treating them as disposable? Maybe Governor Newsom thinks those Californians who are not imprisoned don’t care about these people, but many of us do.

More than three months ago, Newsom used a strawman argument to block any significant change to the status quo at CDCR in response to the pandemic: “I have no interest — and I want to make this crystal clear — in releasing violent criminals from our system,” he said, despite nobody asking for that. “That’s not the way we will go about this. We will do it in a very deliberative way.”

That was in March. We are about to hit July and Newsom and CDCR dithered when they needed to act. Now the conflagration threatens the wider community and San Quentin may become a charnel house. 

The only way I can intellectually explain this negligence is that the governor lives in fear of future negative campaign ads against him when he inevitably runs for president. 

Where is his courage?

Copyright 2020 Anne Weills

Anne Weills
Anne Weills

Anne Weills is a civil rights attorney based in Oakland. She was co-counsel in Ashker v. Brown, et al., which successfully challenged the use of solitary confinement and indefinite detention in the Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit (SHU) and the lack of due process in which prisoners were assigned to the SHU. The Settlement Agreement is still being monitored by a magistrate judge. 

5 comments

  1. Ms. Weills- I cannot thank you enough for your bold statements of the disgusting truth that has been happening behind the so called “curtain”. We, as you stated, many people have love, concern and care deeply that our loved ones are being mistreated. Like cattle waiting to be taken out for slaughter.

    My husband is housed in Susanville at High Desert State Prison, a much-forgotten location. They too, have received an inmate from CIM. They have had ZERO cases in Lassen County until this transfer occurred. Within days CCC (min security) has 231 positive cases and across the road HDSP now at 4 not to mention staffers. INCREASING DAILY!! Staff would not use protective measures because they “didn’t have to” until a certain date that made it a mandate. I wonder how funny it is now. This is one thing that will only affect the inmate population ONLY-it does not discriminate so I guess it is not so trivial now is it.

    I, as well as so many others, am desperate to find justice for my husband. I will make a long story very short. My husband Tramaine Hunter P04710 has served a 25 to life sentence for a crime he did not commit. His 1437 case is stuck in limbo in the courts in Orange County due to COVID. He is now in his 26th year. His parole hearing was postponed numerous times as they violated his rights by transferring him time and again within the 90 days prior to his hearing.

    As you know with each transfer, he gets a new date, months down the road. When he finally did get his hearing over a year later, they focused on me for most all the reasons that he got a 3-year denial. They gave him a list of things to complete: more AA certifcates (he has years of them) a trade that will pay him more than minimum wage upon release (he has a skill, college classes and most prisons do not offer trades even though they say they do) marriage classes (even though we have a great marriage) – we welcomed that and did a marriage course too.

    They want him to have a different place to live than with me- they want him to “stand on his own two feet” and have his own friends – what?? (even though we are married, have great family relationships and he also had letters of acceptance from transitional housing facilities), they want him to get a guarantee of employment letter “on his own” (even though he was given two letters promising employment with two reputable businesses). It is beyond me how they can expect someone who has been incarcerated for 26 years to obtain employment on his own and make more than minimum wage, establish a residence on his own with no outside contacts of his own, not live with his wife and be near his support system and give him a 3 year denial so that he can add to his plethora of certificates, classes etc. Oh that’s right, they set them up to fail. He needs to come home. Yes, I am on probation at the moment based off a very distorted plea deal. I have never in my life been in trouble and in fact previously worked for CDCR. I am a white woman and my husband is black.
    I been called “N” lover by co-workers and everything in the book. I resigned from my state job so as to have my relationship with my husband but the word traveled with every transfer that I went “to the dark side” and we were targeted every time until finally was set up on a drug charge. All that being said, the courts stated that we may reside together. My visits were taken away and I have not seen my husband’s face in almost 3 years. I am in the middle of getting my charge expunged but with the courts stalled out, it is a waiting game. Now to explain about my husband Tramaine Hunter P04710. He has asthma and was not to be housed at any of the facilities that are known for Valley Fever-plus some ethnicities are more susceptible. That is exactly where he was housed. (Some years back) He got sick and was tested for Valley Fever and was informed that the test was negative. No further explanation was given for his illness. Down the road a few years (several transfers later) he was going over his medical history with the doctor and the doctor indicated that my husband’s Valley Fever test was in fact POSITIVE at the time they said negative.
    CDCR was dodging lawsuits over this at the time and they straight up lied. to him. He could have died. My husband has a heart condition, SVT which can be fatal as well. He was hospitalized just about a month ago for this condition in conjunction with asthma and it was terrifying. I do not want to think about what may happen as he now faces Covid making itself known in place he is forced to reside. We have written to Newsom so many times, my husband has sent in commutation packets several times with each time they send him a new packet with a request to fill it out. Like this is some game. I have emailed, written and signed every petition that have known of. I am extremely concerned to say the least that he is just sitting in that petri dish waiting for the sickness to jump in with him. His health concerns (one of which is the fault of CDCR) places him in a high-risk population!!
    I realize there are so many true-life stories out there and people want their loved ones home and I do hope they get resolve. The fact of the matter is, I am advocating for my husband, that is my desire and my duty. He is a wonderful man that has been a real example of making the most of the situation and bettered himself while doing time because someone else took a life. He went in at 16 and is now 41. I mean come on. Give him a portion of his life so that he can truly live. So, again let me say. that I admire your tenacity with which you bring the truth back from behind the curtain to center stage. Thank you thank you thank you. If you should have any advice for me, I would surely take it. And if you could look into the situation of the transfer to CCC and say it out loud because I think that we are looking at another SQ in terms of the rapid spread. Please shed some light on a facility that is often forgotten and a large number of human lives that hang in the balance. THESE THAT ARE ABUSING THEIR POWER HAVE TO BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE. THANK YOU. Warmly, Michele Hunter

  2. if my son dies i will be making a lawsuit violating his 8th amendment title 15. to basic medical and emergency services that were not given and prevention not done. this will cost the state more than they know . they should be going through cases to see who is eligible for release . no excuses.

  3. Eight terms, three violations, under five CDC Numbers, (only the last two of which were CDC-R) just skipping thru a couple of decades in and out with more time in than out, it’s kind of amazing that pretty much everything I served prison time for back then is now a misdemeanor which would only land me jail time…

    Let me paint a picturesque word picture of viewpoint of those both in and out:

    A woman waiting for their man, whether serving overseas or time in prison…

      “The Longest Wait For Love”

    She sits at a table, late, by herself, at the end of another hard day,
their child is sleeping as she reads the letter received from so far away.

    With tears in her eyes she quietly cries and wonders what she is to do,
then she says her prayers, alone, late at night, beside a bed that was made for two.

    A new day begins when she awakens with many things she will need to get done;
bathing, dressing and feeding their child before sitting at a breakfast made for one.

    “I want my daddy,” she hears from one who’s much too young yet to understand,
the loneliness that she feels, too, when hurrying out the door, holding that little ones’ hand.

    Then it’s off to the preschool and errands to run before working another long day,
she keeps to herself and tries not to cry when overhearing what co-workers say.
    
”How does she do it? There’s not really much to it – look at all of the bills that she has to pay.
But she’s all alone, it’s so unfair, why does she still care? and, Oh, she’s just used to him being away.”

    They ask her why she’d wait for him, it’s not her fault he’s gone when he should be there,
the longest wait for love is too hard to grasp for those unwilling to devotedly care.

    So she holds her tongue and doesn’t respond when they try to put down her man,
because she knows that this time will pass and soon he’ll return, until then; she’ll do the best that she can.

    It’s hard alone, she admits to herself, as she picks up their child later that night,
but I love this man as much as I can and I know that I’m doing what’s right.

    Now another day’s gone by and sometimes I cry and wish for something more,
yet it’s him that I Love and with help from Above I’ll wait for the man I adore.

    A marriage, for me, isn’t a matter of ease and it’s not something that I would just throw away,
    other women can do as they please while I’m down on my knees when each night I pray.
I
    ‘m now one day closer to the date when my husband will soon be returned back to me,
until that day arrives I’ll just dry my eyes and take care of our family…

    Written By:
    John Matthew Fernald
    Friday, December 14th, 2007
    Copyright: 2007
    [Comment edited for length]

  4. Gavin Newsom shouldn’t have stated that no one will care for those who are incarcerated. Although they done wrong and are serving their time for what they have done doesn’t mean they aren’t cared about. They are human to and their lives matters as well. How dare Gavin Newsom would say that, they are cared about from their loved ones who are worried sick about them because of this virus that is spreading out controllably and for them to think no cares about them and he didn’t care to do anything after the release of the other inmates that were release at the beginning of this year before the virus can about. I have a fiancé who is in California State Prison Sacramento Folsom Prison and his life along with other inmates matters. Gavin Newsom please do something about this and let those who are awaiting their court date and the elderly, nonviolent prisoners come home to their families that care so much about them.

  5. Singapore has had over 42,000 covid-19 cases, the vast majority (>90%) in foreign construction workers housed in dormitories. Most are Bangladeshi or Indian and do not speak Chinese, English or Malay (the official languages) and did not understand or follow the covid-19 rules. NONE HAS DIED. Only 26 Singaporeans have died and, as globally, the median age is about 80 years old. Half of covid-19 deaths are older than 80, although the aged make up between 1 and 2% of the world’s population.
    The US has twice the incarceration rate of other countries (thank the Clintons! Democrats would have never voted for such horrible bills under a Republican president). However, only the aged and those with severe diseases are vulnerable to covid-19. One would hope the prison system would humanely protect the small percentage of the vulnerable, but probably half of US deaths are in nursing homes; we are “exceptional” in our money grubbing leadership.

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