(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Campbell Hall School

COVID-19 and California’s prisons

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2,585 jails and prisoners are tested positive for COVID-19 across the state as of June.

Prisons are not closed environments, which is a common misconception, reports the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. People entering and leaving prisons frequently — such as prisoners, staff and visitors — put inmates at higher risk. Once in prison, the disease spreads easily.

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has led many states to take action to reduce jail and prison populations. Colorado, California and North Dakota have all decreased populations by at least 30% at certain prisons as of May, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group.

Additionally, the organization reports that in March, police departments throughout California have stopped accepting inmates in at least five state prisons and four juvenile detention centers, to comply with an executive order from Governor Gavin Newsom. In March, arrests statewide have dropped to approximately 60 a day, down from approximately 300 a day, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.

But the halting of arrests does not solve the problem of having some two million inmates currently in prisons, according to Amy Fettig, the deputy director of the ACLU National Prison Project. 

“Our prisons and jails in this country are overcrowded, they’re filthy, they’re unsanitary, and frankly, the medical care is pretty bad in the best of times,” Fettig said in a video statement on the ACLU’s website.

The CDCR reports that it is taking a number of steps to ensure safety in its prisons, such as expedited release, utilizing face coverings and taking proactive measures to contain a recent outbreak at San Quentin State Prison. However, Fettig notes that state facilities lack transparency.

“Prisons and jails traditionally operate in a lot of secrecy,” she said. “They’re not open to the public, they’re not open to political leaders, and what they do oftentimes is not exposed to public gaze. Now more than ever we need transparency, we need accountability and we need prisons and jails to ensure us that they are using the same community standards of care.”

But the state correctional department has defended their actions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the CDCR expedited the release of over 3,500 inmates whose sentences were nearly completed and fit certain requirements. 

On its website, the CDCR states that the release has been one of the largest decreases in its population throughout its history. As of June 30, the Board of Parole Hearings granted 36.5% of inmates parole this year, which is an increase from 34% in 2019.

The releases increased capacity and space to help with inmate movement, physical distancing and quarantine and isolation efforts for positive COVID-19 cases,” the department said. 

The release of inmates raises grave concerns for the safety of victims of crimes. Patricia Wenskunas, Founder and CEO of Crime Survivors, Inc., a Southern California-based organization that assists crime victims, does not agree with the state’s policy on early releases and increased access to parole. 

“I have read nothing about how [the coronavirus] makes criminals less dangerous,” she wrote in an email. “I have read nothing about how [the coronavirus] suddenly rehabilitates criminals and makes them productive members of our society. And most importantly, I have read nothing about how [the coronavirus] protects victims of crime. Using this public emergency to achieve the misguided social justice objective of emptying our jails is shameful.”

Though the CDCR insists that the release of prisoners has complied with the public’s safety in mind, Wenskunas remains unconvinced. Even with Marsy’s Law, a law that grants rights to victims of crimes, she asserts that it is not always effective.

“We have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable populations in our community, and when we decide to just release criminals into our streets, we are impacting the most vulnerable population of all, crime victims,” Wenskunas said.

The CDCR declined a request for comment.