Releasing More People from Prison Will Make All of Us Safer, Not Less So

Eleven years after a federal court found that overcrowding in California’s prisons was unconstitutional, conditions have not improved much. Social distancing is impossible.

By Yoana Tchoukleva and Louis Scott

California’s prisons are overcrowded, unhygienic and inhumane. Public health experts have warned that an outbreak of COVID-19 in any one of them will become “a source of uncontrolled transmission” that will spread far beyond prison walls. We must act now to release people and provide them with necessary reentry support. If we don’t, the health and safety of all Californians will be at risk.

Social distancing is impossible in prison. Built to house 85,000 people, California’s prisons house over 122,000. Most people sleep either in dormitories with dozens of others, bunk beds set three feet apart, or in tiny cells which they share with a cellie. Hand sanitizer is generally not allowed because of its high alcohol content.

In these conditions the virus is spreading like wildfire. And like wildfire, it has and will continue to kill. A man has already died from COVID-related complications in the California Institution for Men in Chino. In that facility alone, 55 incarcerated individuals and 22 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 after expressing symptoms.

The actual number of infections in California’s prisons is likely much higher than reported due to limited testing. In Ohio at the Marion Correctional Institution where everyone was tested, 78% of incarcerated individuals and a majority of staff tested positive for the virus. Ohio’s prisons now account for 20% of all COVID-19 cases in the state, with the death toll rising every day.

It is only a matter of time before California’s prisons also turn into death chambers. Due to decades of racially motivated “tough on crime” laws, people in prison are disproportionately elderly, medically vulnerable and of color, exactly those most at risk of dying from COVID-19.

COVID-19 will not stay contained behind prison walls. It will infect CDCR staff, their families, broader communities and by extension the rest of us long after we think the worse has passed.

Over 37,000 people work in our prisons as guards, healthcare workers, and other staff. They come in and out each day, carrying infections from the outside into the prison and vice versa. Just as Chicago’s Cook County jail and now Ohio’s Marion County prison became the largest sources of infection in the country, a single prison in California can create immeasurable harm.

Still, as my friend Louis Scott said from behind bars, “it doesn’t have to be this way!” “We don’t have to die, and the guards don’t have to worry about their families as we do.”

The Governor has authority under the Emergency Services Act to immediately release people from prison. He has fast-tracked the release of 3,500 individuals convicted of nonviolent offenses who had less than 60 days left of their sentences. But he has refused to consider those he calls “violent criminals”.

The Governor’s position is misguided and discriminatory. It relies on debunked stereotypes and directly contradicts recidivism data. Past conviction history is not an accurate predictor of future violence.

People convicted of violent offenses are less likely to be rearrested than those convicted of property, drug or public order offenses. Further still, people like Louis in their 50s who are serving life sentences for crimes they committed decades ago are the least likely to reoffend. Many of them have taken responsibility for their actions and are now simply aging in our prisons when they can be free, reunited with their families on the outside. Louis has a loving wife who cannot wait to take him in.

Help us turn this story of death into a story of freedom.

Ask the Governor and your state legislators to immediately implement the recommendations put forth in this letter written by leading advocates at The Justice Collaborative, The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and others. Let them know that 61% of Californians are in favor of releasing the elderly and 56% of releasing people with medical conditions. And remind them that what actually determines someone’s success after prison is not their past conviction history, but their present access to resources and community.

Swiftly releasing people and diverting funds from incarceration to reentry programs and family support will make all of us safer. Doing nothing will hurt us for generations to come.


Please send a message to Governor Newsom and your state legislators today! Feel free to use this text or write your own.

“Dear Governor,

I urge you to use your authority under the Emergency Services Act to release more people from prison and reinvest savings from decarceration into reentry support. Please implement the recommendations put forth in this letter — https://bit.ly/3au4RSj— written by leading advocates at The Justice Collaborative, The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and others.

Research shows that past conviction history is not an accurate predictor of future risk. People serving life sentences for crimes they committed decades ago are the least likely to reoffend, with recidivism rates at under one percent. Further, over 61% of Californians are in favor of releasing the elderly and 56% of releasing people with medical conditions regardless of original offense types, as you can see from this report: https://bit.ly/2KnEsLs. What actually determines someone’s success after prison is not their past conviction history, but their present access to resources and community.

Swiftly releasing people and diverting funds from incarceration to reentry programs and family support will make all of us safer. Doing nothing will hurt us for generations to come.

Thank you,

_____________”


Yoana Tchoukleva is a civil rights attorney, restorative justice practitioner, and community organizer in Oakland, currently serving as the Judge Constance Baker Motley Civil Rights Fellow at Equal Justice Society.

Louis Scott is an award-winning incarcerated journalist, restorative justice practitioner, a father and grandfather, writing from Folsom State Prison as the Editor-in-Chief of Old Folsom Today.