My View: Is CDCR Executing Incarcerated People at San Quentin by COVID?


In March of 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom suspended the death penalty in California, arguing at the time, “Our death penalty system has been—by any measure—a failure.”

He wrote, “It has provided no public safety benefit or value as a deterrent. It has wasted billions of taxpayer dollars. But most of all, the death penalty is absolute, irreversible and irreparable in the event of a human error.”

The executive order which he signed argued that capital punishment was inherently unfair and has been applied more often to people of color and those with mental disabilities than to people of privilege, or whites.

The conditions at San Quentin have been a matter of concern with over 1400 total cases now reported at the facility—and media reports have cited negligence on the part of prison officials, who brought the deadly virus to the facility in an effort to move prisoners from another facility. The prison officials failed to test or quarantine the transported prisoners, which started the problem at San Quentin, beginning around June 11.

Yesterday the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in a press release announced the deaths of two men at the facility. But the announcement looked more like CDCR had executed the two men—rather than that they died as the result of a pandemic, with the prison officials themselves bearing a large responsibility for the disease even entering the facility.

The announcement read, “Scott Thomas Erskine, 57, who had been on California’s death row since 2004, and Manuel Machado Alvarez, 59, who had been on death row since 1989, both died on July 3, 2020, at outside hospitals from what appear to be complications related to COVID-19.”

The release then goes into very specific details about the crimes of each men.

Sam Levin, the LA correspondent for the Guardian tweeted, “Quite shocked California prison officials announced two more Covid deaths with detailed descriptions of their convictions, referring to them as ‘condemned inmates,’ because they were on death row.”

He asked, “Is the implication these deaths are acceptable because of their convictions?”

He reminded his followers that it is “worth remembering that Gov Newsom suspended the death penalty last year, saying, ‘I will not oversee the execution of any individual.’”

Mr. Levin points out, “So far he’s done virtually nothing to stop the spread of Covid to death row, San Quentin and across CDCR. 5,000 have been infected. 24 have died.”

Kate Chatfield, Senior Advisor for Legislation and Policy at The Justice Collaborative, tweeted, “Why is their crime of conviction relevant?”

She later tweeted, “I expect full reporting on any abuse suffered in foster care. I expect full reporting on any abuse suffered in a juvenile jail. I expect full reporting on their family’s income level. I expect full reporting on whether they were sexually abused.”

The CDCR is acting as though this were a de facto execution—as though they were carrying out the sentence the state imposed by other means and disregarding the explicit orders by the governor.

Making matters worse is the culpability of the state in all of this. You can blame the governor for acting too slowly, but the blame here largely has to fall on prison officials. Senator Nancy Skinner this week held an emergency hearing about how to address the implications of the pandemic running wild at San Quentin.

As first the San Francisco Chronicle and now the NY Times reported, “The inmates were being moved to San Quentin as part of a plan to halt the spread of the coronavirus by reducing the number of inmates at the California Institution for Men in Chino, where nine inmates had died and nearly 700 had been infected.”

At the time, “there were no inmates known to have had the virus at San Quentin,” but within days “some of the 121 prisoners from the buses introduced the virus at San Quentin, public health officials say.”

Wrote the Times yesterday, “The transfer of inmates — an effort intended to slow the virus, which instead apparently created a new outbreak — has been denounced by health officials and a state lawmaker as a public health failure.”

Advocates have been warning about this problem for some time.

In the early days of the pandemic, March 18, prosecutors around the country signed a letter declaring “we believe that the current crisis creates an even more pressing need for elected prosecutors, public health officials, and other leaders to work together to implement concrete steps in the near-term to dramatically reduce the number of incarcerated individuals and the threat of disastrous outbreaks.”

Three months later, SF District Attorney Chesa Boudin noted, “Overcrowded jails and prisons are exactly the type of tinderbox in which COVID-19 and other diseases can spread like wildfire,” he added. He believes it is a risk not only to the jail population but also, given the churn and the staff coming and going, to the whole community. “So what we did was we listened to the advice of public health officials.”

The San Francisco Public Health official said that they couldn’t prevent death or significant spread,“unless we significantly reduced the jail population.” He said, “We listened, we took action.”

But now the worst fears are being realized and so what the governor must do is figure out which individuals in the prison system he can release, and do so quickly because people are dying because of these mistakes—and the state is liable.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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12 thoughts on “My View: Is CDCR Executing Incarcerated People at San Quentin by COVID?”

  1. Ron Oertel

    He asked, “Is the implication these deaths are acceptable because of their convictions?”

    I’m going to speculate that (for many, and perhaps most citizens of California), the answer is “yes”.  (No, I’m not putting forth my own opinion, here.)

    I’m also going to speculate that most citizens don’t want them released (due to their crimes, AND the resulting additional spread of COVID – outside of prison).

  2. Robert Canning

    Yep, Ron’s right on about this. And sadly it’s the attitude of many who work in CDCR.

    The inept transfer of the inmates from Chino to San Quentin was a massive systems failure. I hope there are oversight hearings of the department and that the Federal court, which run the medical system in the CDCR, will take a deep dive into what happened.

    (Full disclosure: I’ve been a CDCR employee since 2001.)

  3. Robert Canning

    The Vanguard says: “The announcement looked more like CDCR had executed the two men—rather than that they died as the result of a pandemic, …”

    I would take exception to this implication. As the Vanguard’s article noted, the press release noted that both men died of apparent COVID-19 complications and then detailed why they had been incarcerated – what crimes they had committed.

    The press release had 170 words in three short paragraphs. Press releases about inmate deaths always recite the commitment offenses. The department’s press releases about condemned inmates always note what crimes were committed. CDCR press releases often give information about inmates in other circumstances, for instance, on June 26 the department issued a 210-word press release noting the apprehension of an inmate who had walked away from Salinas Valley State Prison in Soledad. The release noted his crimes of commitment and his release date.

    The department does not issue press releases about every inmate death – there are way too many. I don’t know why they preferentially issue press releases about condemned inmates. One might speculate that these individuals are considered more notorious and possibly more newsworthy than others – that’s why they got condemned to death, right?

    But the reasons one has been sentenced to death in California – like in other states – is more capricious than one might think. What county you committed the crime in, what your skin color is, what your criminal history was, etc. etc. ad infinitum. The 700+ inmates who live at San Quentin and the dozen or so female condemned inmates in Chowchilla are no different than thousands of other inmates in the CDCR with sentences of 30, 40, 50 years, or life-without-parole (the “quiet death sentence”).

    Anyway, my point is this: if these inmates had not been condemned at SQ I doubt they would have written much about it. The first COVD-19 death in CDCR was in April and the 120-word press release didn’t name the name of the inmate or his crimes. Deaths of condemned inmates should not be, IMO, any more newsworthy than the COVID-19 inmate deaths at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison or Avenal State Prison or Chino, etc.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      This was the press release sent from June 29: “ We sincerely regret to inform you that an incarcerated person from Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (CVSP) died June 28 at an outside hospital from what appear to be complications related to COVID-19. The exact cause of death has not yet been determined. The incarcerated person’s next of kin has been notified. No additional information is being provided to protect individual medical privacy. ”

      Compare that to yesterday’s

      1. Robert Canning

        Note that they said they were protecting individual medical privacy but when it comes to condemned inmates, well, that’s a different story.

  4. David Greenwald Post author

    This is from today’s press release after they got roundly criticized for Yesterday’s

    Condemned Inmate Dewayne Carey Dies


    SAN QUENTIN – Dewayne Michael Carey, 59, was pronounced deceased on July 4, 2020 at an outside hospital from what appear to be complications related to COVID-19. An exact cause of death has not yet been determined. 


    Carey was committed to CDCR on Dec. 16, 1996 as a condemned inmate from Los Angeles County for first-degree murder.

  5. Bill Marshall

    Interesting… folk seem to be much more concerned about the prison population, than those ‘incarcerated’ due to age/illness in convalescent care facilities… they are not ‘eligible for release’… and their “crime” was age and/or ‘complicating’ health factors… they too, have suffered the ‘death penalty’ due to Covid, at the hands of society… go figure…

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      The two biggest hotspots are senior facilities and incarceral facilities. It just so happens that the latter is my Bailiwick

    2. Robert Canning

      Bill, there’s a lot to say about this.

      1) Inmates in prison are the only population in the country for whom health care is mandated. The law (via multiple court decisions) holds the state responsible for providing constitutionally adequate health care for prison and jail inmates and detainees. The fact that CDCR is incapable of this is the main reason the Supreme Court in 2011 ordered the state to reduce its prison population. So we should always be concerned about how the state is taking care of its prisoners. (As a side note, I’ve heard a number of people over the years whine about inmates “getting better health care than I do.” The proper response in those cases, IMO, is not giving inmates less health care, but suggesting the speaker get a better health plan. After all, out in the community, we can change health plans and get different doctors.  Prisoners have one health plan. They can’t decide to go to Sutter because they’re unhappy with Kaiser.)

      2) Your comment that “folk seem to be much more concerned…” is a red herring. The fact that some are concerned about prisoners does not ipso facto mean they are not or less concerned about convalescent care facilities. Did you get this notion from this article? After all, the article wasn’t about how much better care is for inmates vs. patients in care facilities. The article is specifically about prisoners. Maybe someone could write an article about convalescent homes and then a commenter could say that people care more about convalescent facility “inmates” more than prison inmates. And yes, some of the conditions apply to both but simply because  David chooses to write about prison inmates (an area that he is quite interested in) does not mean he is less interested in convalescent care facilities.

      1. Bill Marshall


        Fair enough response in the main, but “red herring?”  A purposeful deception?   Thought you were better than that… not my intention… not reasonably implied by my words… saying those in a convalescent home have a lot of affordable choices (or, their choices are made by others), I would posit as being a “red herring”… same for the working poor and the homeless… less options/less gov’t mandates/funding for prevention/care than those who are incarcerated.  It is what it is.

        If it were up to me, I’d support to working towards keeping all supported from contracting covid, etc., and having medical support available if they contracted it (I except the anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers… they make a ‘choice’).

        And yes, in a lot of the media coverage, political cartoons, etc., and even the headline of the main article, it comes across as all about the “mistreatment”/executions of incarcerated folk… zero recognition that covid (and other medical care issues) go far beyond the one class of folk… it applies to all (‘all lives/health matters’)… and, IMNSHO it detracts from the concept that we have a health threat crisis that cares not about income levels, availability of health care, and we should be working on dealing with that “across the board”, and not segmentally.

        Feel free to disagree, but please don’t impugn my motives.


        1. Bill Marshall

          Addendum… we can and should do more to reduce overcrowding in jails/prisons… that is “low-hanging fruit” that can be done segmentally… but there should be consideration given for pre-release testing, and 2-3 week mandatory self-isolation for those released…

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