OAKLAND — A car caravan Sunday marked the latest attempt to draw attention to the plight of the state’s incarcerated population amid major prison and jail outbreaks of COVID-19, a debate that’s drawn new attention as limited supplies of the vaccine are distributed among at-risk populations.
The rally that took about 100 cars over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco was the latest protest in an eight-month campaign that has become part of a broader conversation about health equity and prison reform.
Activists on Sunday laid the blame for the state’s prison outbreaks at the feet of Gov. Gavin Newsom, saying that the failure to keep the prison population safe is tantamount to Eighth Amendment violations involving unusual and cruel punishment.
“This was foreseeable but they failed to act,” said Min. King-x, director of California Prison Focus. “We feel the governor has blood on his hands for the simple fact that he was placed on notice or he should have known. It is established deliberate indifference to their medical needs.”
While the incarcerated face a much higher risk of infection of coronavirus due to their housing, some have debated whether they should be given priority for vaccination over those without criminal records.
Jonathan Simon, Associate Dean of the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program at the UC Berkeley School of Law, said he worried that some people miss the point: “We don’t sentence people to prison to die.”
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it has logged 47,403 confirmed cases of COVID and 192 deaths related to the virus. It has 2,200 active cases among those in custody, according to the CDCR’s website.
Protestors on Sunday advocated for compassionate releases, saying most of the candidates are older and have a low risk of committing new violent crimes. California has released about 18,000 people since summer, when an outbreak inside San Quentin State Prison drew public attention to the situation.
At the time, prison reform activists marched to the gates of San Quentin and chained themselves to a fence outside Gov. Gavin Newsom’s home in Sacramento.
Protest organizer Courtney Morris of No Justice Under Capitalism said state officials have done little during the winter surge although the prison population remains at high risk.
“If they let out folks at the start of the pandemic why have they fallen silent now?” she asked.
Advocates for release say those who spend decades in prison have suffered enough from a law-and-order era that led to the three-strikes laws of the early 1990s.
Morris said statistics that show a low recidivism rate for people 55 years and older make it an easy decision to reduce the system’s aging population. She said that like those in the general population the elderly in prisons are the most vulnerable to COVID-19-related health issues.
The protests, however, also have led to an outcry from some prosecutors and victims of crime advocates. Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp told reporters in August she was against the mass releases because “now we have to take care of (prisoners) outside on the street.”
Berkeley’s Simon said prison sentences often are seen by victims as a recognition of the harm someone has caused. He said it understandably causes anguish when the acknowledgment is eroded by having people released early.
“I don’t fault victims for feeling emotion or anger about that,” Simon said.
The Pentagon announced this weekend that it would pause a plan to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to the 40 prisoners held at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, responding to recent criticism.
Robert Weisberg, founder and co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, said it is a normal impulse to prioritize a scarce commodity like the vaccine. He said some see criminals as a low priority to get vaccinated because they have broken the social contract of society.
The state has established three phases of vaccine distribution, starting with priority for healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities who have suffered heavily from the virus.
California officials currently have also approved vaccine distribution for those eligible in Phase IB, including people over the age of 65, teachers, law enforcement officers and those who congregate in locations with a high-risk of an out outbreak such as jails and prisons and homeless encampments.
“The penalty people are getting is a certain number of years in prison or in jail,” Weisberg said. “It is not supposed to be an extra penalty to suffer health harms.”
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Author: Elliott Almond