Story at a glance
- California has one of the highest prison populations in the United States, which has the largest prison population in the world.
- New coronavirus cases are spiking in the state’s prisons among a statewide surge.
- Advocates are calling for the state to speed up depopulation efforts to eliminate prison overcrowding.
More than 38,000 incarcerated people have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, following a recent spike predicted by the office of the inspector general in an independent oversight report last month.
While the state has started vaccinating inmates with special medical needs, supply remains limited and advocates say more inmates need to be released.
“In the last nine months the state had a chance to do the right thing, they didn’t and now people inside are terrified,” Hadar Aviram, a professor with UC Hastings Law, told the Guardian.
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More coronavirus cases are connected to 60 prisons in the state than more than 300 nursing homes, as well as colleges, universities and food processing facilities, according to the New York Times’ COVID-19 Tracker. Across the country, more than 433,000 people have been infected in jails and prisons, and at least 1,960 inmates and correctional officers have died. Six of the facilities with the highest case counts are located in California, according to the Times’ tally.
"We have implemented robust response and mitigation efforts across the system, including mandating the use of procedural [surgical] masks by all staff in our institutions, anyone entering institutions grounds is screened both verbally and by temperature check, and conducting staff and inmate testing regularly," said Vicky Waters, a special adviser at California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told CNN.
As of November, California Gov. Gavin Newsom had granted four medical reprieves while in office along with 22 pardons and 13 commutations, allowing those classified as "high medical risk" by the CDCR to serve their sentences "in appropriate alternative placements in the community."
“I simply will not en masse release people without looking individual by individual,” he told The Guardian, saying that he reviewed individual cases on a weekly basis and continued to follow protocols. “I respect those who want to bypass protocols but we are moving in a different direction.”
The CDCR itself reported this year that offenders who had been sentenced to a life term have a low recidivism rate, or tendency to reoffend, and the majority of those who do were convicted of misdemeanors.
“I think CDCR believes what they’re doing is reasonable and sufficient,” James King, a state campaigner for the social justice nonprofit Ella Baker Center, told the Guardian. “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.”
The CDCR told HuffPost that the state's prison population is the lowest in three decades, reduced by more than 22,000 people since March. As of Dec. 23, the CDCR reported 95,897 people in custody under their supervision.
That includes actress Lori Loughlin, who was released on Dec. 28, and Elizabeth Henriquez, another parent imprisoned for the college bribery scandal earlier this year, who was told that her “underlying health condition does not place her at a higher risk for complications due to COVID-19 … (and) that the Bureau of Prisons has taken extraordinary steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in FCI Dublin.”
“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,” lawyer Donald Specter told the Guardian. Specter is leading a lawsuit to eliminate prison overcrowding and was denied an emergency motion in late March to speed up a 2011 depopulation. “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.”
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