While concerns about the conditions of prisons and jails were aired prior to the current pandemic, COVID-19 has raised those stakes to the potential that even a minor arrest or incarceration will lead to death in California’s jails and prison.
On Wednesday the Real Justice Pac, and host Chris Lazare, held a webinar featuring State Senator Nancy Skinner, Alameda Public Defender Brendon Woods and George Gascón, former San Francisco DA and current candidate for DA in Los Angeles.
With attention focused on the death of George Floyd, protests and the riots, the discussion started there.
Brendon Woods argued there was nothing new about the police violence: “It always has occurred and the only difference now is it’s on Facebook and it’s on Twitter. The national outrage around police brutality is necessary.”
He added, “If we want to fix the problem, we have to expand it beyond police brutality lens and get to the real heart of the matter which is systemic racism that occurs in each and every segment of society.”
Senator Nancy Skinner, who represents Berkeley and part of Oakland, noted the huge amount of money that we are currently spending on incarceration.
She noted, in the budget crisis, California is making huge cuts.
But she said, “Our corrections budget, which is our prison budget, even with this big drop in revenue, will, if we adopt it as proposed, will be less than one percent reduction from what we spent last year. So it will be $17.4 billion and maybe we spent $17.6 last year.”
Every other budget, she said—“the cuts range from minimum five percent upwards to 40 percent.”
Why? She said “systemic and structural racism are at the core of much of it.”
She said if you “look at the code words, the code language we use around public safety are to inspire fear in white people, are a kind of coded language around crime and around violence.” She said, “Then we know who gets stopped, who gets arrested, who gets convicted.”
Senator Skinner added, “I hope we can use this painful moment of confronting the police brutality to understand its layers.”
George Gascón agreed: “The problem of racism in this country is systemic and certainly impacts almost every walk of life.”
He added, “We have an opportunity today to perhaps address police violence and address a lot of the systemic problems that we have in the criminal justice system in hopefully a better way than we have in the past.”
A big question that Chris Lazare raised was what the connection is between the COVID crisis and the marchers—and for the panelists, the answer was clearly the injustice and the brokenness of the system.
Gascón noted that even with the reforms which have been implemented, the system remains broken.
“We are prosecuting too many people and usually, almost always people of color,” he said. “Sometimes even before you’re proven guilty you are already almost given a death sentence.”
He added that what has been ignored so far are the public health concerns. “Not only are the people incarcerated being impacted,” but the people who work around the jails and prisons “are bringing stuff back to the community.”
“We’re seeing a complete disregard for the obvious, which is we have a pandemic and public health needs to be at the top priority here. We still have the criminal justice system not getting the message.”
Brendon Woods added there is a clear link between the two. “People of color make up 30 percent of the population in the United States, they make up 60 percent of the incarcerated population,” he said. “Ten percent of black men are behind bars right now. Absolutely it’s related.”
He added, “Think about the impacts COVID is having on the black community—systemic racism in health care, systemic racism in the criminal justice system, it is all intertwined.
“When you sentence black and brown people to jail, when there is a national pandemic, and they are in there for nonviolent offenses, they are going to die, we’ve see that happen,” he said.
Senator Nancy Skinner pointed out that prisons and jails are among the largest remaining congregate facilities. There have not been that many deaths to date, but the concentration of cases is there.
Jails and prisons have the potential to spread COVID like wildfire, she said, and this brings a risk of spreading it throughout the community.
She noted that the staff personnel are actually the ones bringing it to the facilities because, while the incarcerated are locked down and isolated from their families, “the staff is still coming in and out and they’re bringing the virus.”
She said, “So any congregate facility with this virus puts everyone at risk in California.”
But the core issue is why are there so many people in California prisons to begin with.
George Gascón said, “We went into a incarceration binge in this country around 30 years ago. The more that we did, the more that we liked it and we did more and more. We led the way as a state.”
For Brendon Woods, the answer was simple: power, money, racism, and fear.
“The fear that we see is fear of black people,” he said. “That’s what generates all of it.
“There is this narrative perpetrated by law enforcement about black people and crime,” he said. “How people are dangerous. How black people are criminals. How black people are suspects.”
He said, “As a black person, it is much much more dangerous to be a black person.”
Woods noted that police and the government, and also civilians, “hunt us,” referencing the case of Ahmaud Arbery for example.
Picking up on that, Senator Skinner said, “Look at how (President Trump) uses this language.” She said, “Look at how he invokes all of the code language and sends his base out to, in effect, hunt black people down. To guarantee that black people are stripped of all rights.”
She noted the evolution of this from the “lock them up laws” of President Nixon in the early 70s and the “safe neighborhoods code.”
But George Gascón noted that just because we have locked up more people, it has not made us safer.
To reference this point, he noted in 2012 Prop 36 passed, amending three strikes. At that time, there were thousands of people who were doing 25 to life.
“They were in most counties released within a period of time,” he said. “The recidivism rate for the people released under Prop 36—under two percent.”
He noted Prop 47 was passed in 2014 and that took incarceration from 170,000 to 130,000 in the state.
“Crime did not go up,” he said.
COVID has led to the release of many throughout the state, he said, “not enough,” but a lot of people. “We have released a lot of people and crime hasn’t gone up.”
He said, “We have been incarcerating beyond any return on investment.”
But, as Brendon Woods argued, what has been done has not been enough, “hell no.”
“Thirty-five hundred may seem like a lot,” he said. “But when you consider the entire prison population, that’s 2.9 percent.”
He noted, at the county jail level, they are releasing people with six months left to serve. But they are only talking about 60 days at the prison level.
“Come on, really,” he said. “At a bare minimum, if we are going to have a real conversation, we have to start with a year.”
He said, “If they have a year left to serve, get them out.”
Nancy Skinner spoke about her legislation that would knock parole down from three years to two years.
She said, “Many people who have served 15 to 20 years already are no threat to society if they are released.” She added that there really is no need for a third year of parole, and statistics say that those who are going to go back into a life of crime do it almost immediately. “If a person exhibits significant criminal behavior, they do so right away.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting
To sign up for our new newsletter – Everyday Injustice – https://tinyurl.com/yyultcf9