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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