Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration on Friday green-lighted the early release of more than 8,000 state prison inmates in response to surging COVID-19 infections in California prisons, in essence conceding their inability to control the virus among the incarcerated.
The releases, set to occur on a “rolling basis” between now and the end of August, will involve low-level offenders and older inmates who officials say pose less risk to public safety. An as-yet-uncertain number of those may actually have the virus at the time of release and will be moved into quarantine; others will be infection-free but are being released because the state cannot guarantee their safety while in prison.
Newsom and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation have been under intense pressure to take action after an explosive outbreak at San Quentin State Prison, which as of Friday accounts for 1,331 of the state’s 2,318 active COVID-19 prison cases.
“The decision today by Gov. Newsom to ramp up safe prison releases is a credit to the advocacy of people and organizations throughout the state who have demanded clear action to protect public health and safety,” Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, said in a statement. “It’s ironic that California has a moratorium on the death penalty, yet people are being killed in prisons by way of COVID.”
It is not the first such action California has been forced to take, and it may not be the last.
Since the end of March, the state prison system has decreased its population from 126,000 to about 113,000, partially by releasing low-level offenders near the end of their sentences. Alameda County Chief Public Defender Brendon Woods contends that another 60,000 low-risk inmates can be released. He called the Friday news “a step in the right direction” but said it falls short of what is needed.
“It barely scratches the surface of the enormous problem of COVID in prisons,” Woods said. “I would go as far as saying it’s severely deficient.”
At least one advocacy group objected to Friday’s news for divergent reasons.
“The state has already released 10,000 so-called ‘non-violent’ inmates early, and to nearly double this is an afront to crime victims and a serious risk to public health and safety,” Nina Salarno Besselman, president of Crime Victims United, said in a statement. “There are no ‘non-violent’ inmates left to release — those were released long ago, or are now sentenced to local jails.”
San Quentin has recorded seven deaths to date, and about 70 inmates have been hospitalized outside the facility. The virus is also spreading from the prison into the community as workers come and go.
Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County’s public health officer, called the situation a “disaster” and said the prison is “set up for another outbreak.” The state Office of Emergency Services is constructing a 200-bed field hospital on the prison grounds to offset the impact on local hospitals.
According to state corrections officials and Willis, those eligible for early release will be tested for COVID-19 seven days before their exit date, and anyone who tests positive or is believed to be exposed to the virus will be given a hotel room in which to quarantine through the state-funded prison transition program Project Hope. Those who do not test positive are still being encouraged to quarantine, and if they don’t have a home, they are eligible for a room through Project Roomkey, a newer state program to protect unhoused people from the virus.
That’s a key concern for Marin County Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, who said the state completely “failed to plan” for a rash of infections it should have anticipated months ago.
“The Department of Corrections is in panic mode, but they also need to carefully evaluate each prisoner’s rehabilitation and chance for success — and as each prisoner is released, ensure that housing support and probation services are available to them immediately,” Levine said.
Prison and jail outbreaks have worsened as the state grapples with the pandemic’s worst fallout yet. California approached 305,000 cases as of Friday and hit all-time records during the week in average cases and average daily deaths, while hospitalizations have climbed upwards for nearly two weeks to more than 7,800 patients on Thursday alone.
Most of San Quentin’s COVID-19 infections surfaced in the past two weeks after 121 inmates, many carrying the virus, were transferred there in late May from the California Institution for Men in Chino. That decision was widely criticized and led to the demotion of the state prisons’ top medical officer and the installation of a court-appointed federal receiver to oversee that part of the system.
James King, a former San Quentin inmate and a state campaigner for the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, has called for Newsom to tour the prison to see the dire conditions himself. At a news conference in front of the prison Thursday, he read a letter from an inmate who said he was bedridden and vomiting but only infrequently allowed to bathe. The letter described how sick inmates can be heard frequently shrieking in pain.
Since the formal declaration of the pandemic in early March, the state’s prisons have recorded 5,810 total coronavirus cases — including at least 31 deaths — across the system as of Friday. Most of the 8,000 state prison inmates eligible for release fall into one of four categories:
- 4,800 inmates with 180 days or less left on their sentences for a nonviolent, non-sex crime
- Nonviolent inmates over the age of 30 with a year or less left on their sentence, and who are being held in a prison deemed to be housing “large populations of high-risk patients,” including San Quentin
- 2,100 inmates benefiting from a one-time 12-week custody credit for good behavior, excluding those on life-without-parole or death sentences
- “High risk” inmates with serious health ailments that make them especially vulnerable to contracting or dying from COVID-19, including inmates over the age of 65
Woods, the Bay Area public defender, remains wary about whether the eligibility criteria will actually result in the 8,000-person goal forecast by CDCR.
“I’m deeply concerned that the estimates are exaggerated,” he said. “There are numerous carve-outs that should make one believe the numbers will be a lot smaller.”