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Will COVID-19 vaccinations mean more prison overcrowding deaths?

California’s decades-old ‘tough on crime’ laws still fill prisons, creating disease danger zones.

In January, Alfred King , a 68-year-old man with a Santa Claus belly bulging out of a Nike Dri-FIT shirt, stood before my cell gate at California’s San Quentin State Prison, holding up a small white card. “I got my shot — I’m good to go,” he said, smiling as he handed through the bars proof that he received his first Moderna coronavirus vaccination.

King, who has asthma, has been in prison for 41 years. He barely survived a prison outbreak of valley fever, a deadly fungus that attacks the lungs. The coronavirus vaccine meant that he might not die trapped in a cell as the disease spread through the overcrowded prison system.

I handed the card back. Although the vaccine might slow the spread of the coronavirus, I knew it was no cure for the prison overcrowding that has been slaughtering us for decades. The pandemic had forced California to reduce prison populations for the time being. I worried that with vaccinations, we would go back to those previous deadly conditions. 

 

Men like King and me were caught up in the “tough on crime” agenda of the 1980s and ’90s, when harsh sentencing requirements, including California’s three-strikes law and sentence enhancement laws, packed the California prison system to nearly double its design capacity. More recent laws have eliminated or modified some sentencing enhancements and made others discretionary. Most of those developments aren’t retroactive, even though I’ve observed that many over-sentenced prisoners are in our 50s or older, and studies show we no longer pose a threat to public safety.

Today, prisons remain overcrowded because of racist sentencing practices. For example, more than 90% percent of the people sent to prison from Los Angeles County are people of color. Blacks make up just 9% of LA’s population, but comprise almost 40% of LA’s state prison population, according to a special directive by Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón.

Over-sentencing people and packing them into prisons is deadly, and California’s prisoners have been battling unsafe conditions through lawsuits for decades. In 2011, the Supreme Court upheld a decision by a federal three-judge panel, finding that overcrowding causes unnecessary medical deaths. The ruling ordered the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) to reduce its prison population from nearly double occupancy, to almost 138% of design capacity.

During my 17 years in the California prison system, I caught norovirus, which had me expelling feces and vomit simultaneously for a week while my cellie held his nose. I caught the flu and three other respiratory illnesses. I was at San Quentin during chickenpox and Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks. Last year, I caught the coronavirus. My symptoms included a pounding headache, nasal congestion, chills and fatigue — and the bitter feeling that the CDCR would rather let me die than see me free.

My symptoms included a pounding headache, nasal congestion, chills and fatigue — and the bitter feeling that the CDCR would rather let me die than see me free.

Illustration by Krystal Quiles; source photo of Rahsaan “New York” Thomas by Eddie Herena.

California’s long history of prison overcrowding has been made even more deadly by the coronavirus pandemic. According to The Appeal, during the worst of the outbreak at San Quentin, between May and August last year, at least 2,000 incarcerated people — more than 75% of the prison’s population — and almost 300 staff members contracted COVID-19.

In May of 2020, Ivan Von Staich, who was incarcerated at San Quentin, petitioned the California court system for placement in a CDCR-supervised residential facility, alleging that prison officials had failed to heed warnings about the coronavirus pandemic and acted with deliberate indifference, in what amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. By mid-October, 29 people had died, including one staff member. Prison advocates, medical experts and formerly incarcerated people warned that the virus would be deadly in the poorly ventilated, overcrowded cellblocks, yet parts of the prison, including mine, were kept at nearly double their design capacity, with the CDCR housing two people in cells originally designed for one person.

Finally, a three-judge panel found that San Quentin prison officials subjected us prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment because, despite warnings from medical health experts to reduce the prison’s population by half to allow social distancing, the CDCR kept sections so overcrowded that catching the coronavirus became an unsanctioned part of our sentence. The CDCR reluctantly began transferring some people and paroling others early. Emergency releases were granted to some lifers at San Quentin.

In the ruling, the judges called the pandemic the “worst epidemio-
logical disaster in California correctional history.”

 The judges ordered San Quentin to reduce its population by 50% by transferring or paroling people, including elderly people serving life sentences for violent or serious crimes if necessary. In the ruling, the judges called the pandemic the “worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history.”

The population at San Quentin dropped from about 3,500 people in June, to about 2,700 in January. Gov. Gavin Newsom eventually expanded COVID-19 early releases to prisoners considered medically high-risk, including chronically ill prisoners over 65, and prisoners with underlying respiratory illnesses. But violent crime exclusions kept cellblocks that held men serving life sentences — including King and me — overcrowded, even though the judges noted that 75% of lifers are in the CDCR’s lowest-risk category for public safety, with a recidivism rate of just 1%, compared to California’s overall recidivism rate of almost 50%. As of March 2021, the governor had granted just nine COVID-19 releases to lifers at San Quentin.

The corrections department has fought the ruling, even as more men have died — including Mike Hampton, an elderly guy I knew who was serving life for a burglary career under the three-strikes law. Hampton became a Christian and got married while incarcerated. COVID-19 snatched his life months before his scheduled parole board hearing. (Details of his death were not confirmed by the CDCR.)

Despite all the deaths, the population of North Block, where I am housed, remains over design capacity, though the CDCR recently disputed this by email.

The courts move too slowly to save us. Von Staich’s ongoing COVID-19 litigation, started a year ago, has no end in sight. Even if the ruling stands, the coronavirus vaccine may allow the CDCR to overcrowd the California penal system to its earlier levels. North Block may again see single-person cells filled to double capacity. Across California, the prison system could erase the reductions achieved in response to the coronavirus.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.10/when-usual-residence-is-a-prison]

To reduce overcrowding, the CDCR should speed up the process of releasing the Mike Hamptons of the system: people over-sentenced for serious crimes where no one was hurt. Then, consider releasing those of us who committed violent crimes but have since changed our lives and, at this point, would be assets to society.

History teaches us that overcrowding spreads disease. If California does not immediately release more people, the coronavirus vaccines may turn California prisons back into overcrowded petri dishes, with prisoners like me awaiting the next deadly viral outbreak.

Rahsaan “New York” Thomas is a writer, journalist and social justice advocate currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison. He directs, produces and co-hosts the award-winning podcast Ear HustleEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.