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As releases continue throughout the CDCR system, we hope to tell more of the individual stories of incarcerated people during this time.
Chanthon Bun was released from San Quentin Prison (SQ) on parole this spring in the midst of the COVID outbreak. He discussed his story with KBVS radio.
When in San Quentin, he opted out of testing in fear of having parole revoked, despite clearly being sick.
After being released, Bun was not provided any transportation or services from CDCR. He took public transport into the city and called his lawyer on a borrowed phone.
He had intense COVID-19 symptoms – hallucinations and motion sickness. His attorney found him taking a nap in a park. He was able to find isolated housing and medical support through community organizations.
Jack Benford was also previously incarcerated at SQ, and was given parole in November after 24 years.
Because of the COVID-19 crisis, Benford has lost many loved ones. “I lost my mother and my father during this whole COVID situation,” he said in an interview with KBVS. Both parents died while Benford was waiting to be released.
Several of Benford’s lifelong friends from prison have also passed away due to COVID.
Benford himself tested positive, and was released to an isolated hotel room after two of his tests came back negative.
CDCR did not respond with food for Bentford. Instead his community brought food and homemade meals.
Mike Madeaux also ran into the same problem as Bentford, as he discussed with CBS Bay Area. After his release from SQ after nearly 7 years of incarceration, he was provided a hotel room in Novato, where he had to quarantine for 2 weeks. However, he was not brought any food, a problem that was life threatening for a diabetic like himself.
Because of the lack of food delivery and no response from Project Hope, Madeaux was forced to leave the hotel room to get food from a local store. “I’m diabetic and I’m shaking because I haven’t had any food,” Madeux said.
Marin County Public Health officer Matt Willis attributed the mistake to a breakdown in communication.
Dwanda Schwarz’s father was months away from parole when he got infected with COVID-19 at San Quentin. Now she’s forced to make the difficult decision of whether or not to keep him on life support.
“I was like this is the year, right, Dad? We can see if you can come home and he’s never coming home,” Schwarz said to Kron4.
At 74 years old, her father has been fighting the virus for weeks after contracting it in June. Despite her father’s inability to speak, the two continue to communicate through FaceTime calls.
“My dad is not brain dead. He is there, but he just has no control over his body and will not gain that back,” Schwarz said.
Although Schwarz wants to hold out until the end, her father has expressed that he no longer wants to be on the machine.
“There are so many people who are dying alone and that is the hardest part I think about this,” Schwarz said. “I feel very helpless right now.”
Public Concerns of COVID-19 in CDCR
On Sunday, June 2, hundreds of protesters marched from Larkspur Ferry Terminal to the West Gates of San Quentin to demand safer conditions and more ambitious releases.
Many of those who attended were directly connected to the prison system, either through incarcerated loved ones or organizations like the No Justice Under Capitalism Coalition or We are the Voices, who co-led the event.
In an interview with KCBS Radio, Courtney Morris, NJUC organizer, explained what the main demands of the march were – “Gavin Newsom does have the opportunity to grant mass releases, and that’s what we’re demanding today: No state execution by COVID-19.”
“We can’t say we have a moratorium on the death penalty if we’re dying due to criminal state negligence at the hands of the state,” Morris added.
Natia Woodfork, wife of Ray Woodfork, a person incarcerated at Solano State Prison, also attended the protest. She also voiced another concern of the protesters – “If the incarcerated population wasn’t going to be released, they needed better protocol to prevent the spread.”
“They need to understand that with this COVID, there are a lot of precautions that need to be taken inside of there that is not [being taken],” she said.
Two people currently incarcerated in San Quentin spoke by calling in.
Troiano Hudson said,“They still haven’t cleaned out the air vents here. We’re breathing in trash and dust. Medical is not the same.”
“We are dying in here,” said Thanh Tran, another person incarcerated in San Quentin.
Dawn Maria, part of We Are the Voices Administration summed up the general attitude of the protesters- “ [The incarcerated] were not sentenced to die by the coronavirus. [CDCR] needs to reassess their cases… and send them home.”
Some victims of violent crime have also stepped up to voice their support for releases. Lupe Angulo, in her interview with KCBS radio, discussed her support.
7 years ago, Angulo’s fiance was caught in crossfire that was later determined to be gang-related. Her husband passed away before she discovered she was pregnant with his child.
In the coming years, Angulo became involved in restorative justice, which led her to meet her current partner Thanh Tran, who is incarcerated at San Quentin. She had been attending protests and advocating for mass releases as well.
Effect of CDCR Outbreaks on Public
Several Californian communities have expressed concern regarding the releases, mainly because of the lack of care correctional officers are taking when releasing possibly infected people.
Michael Kirkpatrick, a person formerly incarcerated at San Quentin, was released on July 13th, and described his experience to the Los Angeles times. Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick described the lack of enforced isolation at the hotels where those released were staying. Several left their rooms to roam San Francisco as there was no one stopping them.
“You got guys who are just getting out of prison and want their freedom. The person at the front desk is not going to tell you not to go anywhere.”
Kirkpatirck also mentioned that he had never had a temperature check, and only received his test results when he checked in with his parole officer.
“None of us knew anything, and it was bringing up a lot of stress,” he said. “We didn’t know anything, and nobody was contacting us.”
32 year-old Joe Anderson, who was released early from California Institute for Men in April, had a similar experience. He described only getting a temperature check at release, and being tested 5 days later.
He ended up testing positive, and was told to quarantine at a hotel after several days of being in the general public.
“I just wonder how many people they let go like me,” he said.
CDCR has not provided any funding or help toward reentry programs despite them being overwhelmed by new releases.
Karen McDaniel is the founder of Fighting for Families Impacted by Incarceration, a program that provides transportation and other help to recently released people. She discussed that CDCR was not providing adequate, safe transportation, and had recommended Amtrak for transportation instead.
Karen McDaniel, founder of Fighting for Families Impacted by Incarceration, which offers rides home and other help to those being released, said her organization has been overwhelmed by the need for their services.
“It is tremendous pressure,” McDaniel said. “We shouldn’t be the ones completely tasked by the state of California for getting all these releases home. It’s really quite frankly astounding.”
CDCR Confirmed Cases and Outcomes
As of August 7th, there are a total of 8,652 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system, with 1,007 in the last two weeks. 15.6% of the cases are active in custody while 3.4% have been released.
There have been 51 deaths across the CDCR system thus far, with San Quentin Prison (SQ) making up 45% of total deaths.
Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) in Crescent City has tested the highest amount of patients in the last two weeks –– 82% of its population. Still, PBSP has no confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe, which has 1054 confirmed cases, now has zero infected individuals in custody after releasing 1.6% and resolving 98%.
Earlier in the week, Correctional Training Facility (CTF) in Soledad reported its first three cases. 3 facilities (Deuel Vocational Institution, Pelican Bay State Prison, Valley State Prison) still have zero confirmed cases.s
Despite having no confirmed cases of infected incarcerated people, a correctional officer at Valley State Prison (VSP) died Sunday after contracting COVID-19.
Sergeant Seeyengkee Ly served 17 years in CDCR at multiple facilities throughout the state correctional system.
“He will be remembered for his life and service, and his ultimate sacrifice is a reminder of the challenges faced by all of those who choose to walk the line behind prison walls,” read a statement released by Glen Stailey, State President of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. “Our deepest condolences to Sergeant Ly’s family, our thoughts are with them during this difficult time.”
There are currently 1,954 staff cases in the CDCR facilities. 1,038 are currently active while 916 have returned back to work.
Ly is the eighth COVID-19 related reported staff death.
COVID-19 in CDCR’s San Quentin
There have been four deaths this week at San Quentin.
One of the individuals is Orlando G. Romero, 48, who was pronounced dead on Aug. 2 at an outside hospital. He is the 21st incarcerated person at San Quentin to die during the pandemic.
Although his death appears to be from complications related to COVID-19, a coroner is still yet to determine the exact cause.
According to CDCR, Romero was sentenced to death in Riverside County on Aug. 28, 1996, for first-degree murder and second-degree robbery while armed with a firearm. He was also sentenced to three life-with-parole sentences for attempted first degree murder armed with a firearm, attempted first-degree murder and other numerous offenses, and finally for kidnap/robbery while armed with a firearm and several robbery offenses. He was admitted onto death row the following month.
In response to the many deaths, more than 40 incarcerated people at SQ have filed petitions for the court to order the prison to release them.
“There’s no such thing as six foot distancing in an overcrowded prison,” Attorney Danielle Harris said. “That’s just not possible.”
Back in May, Rapper E-40 announced that he planned to donate 1,000 gallons of hand sanitizer to the incarcerated population in SQ and Lompoc.
Despite his efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the crowded cells, his donation never made it to SQ.
CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas said that there are “detailed procedures for accepting donations that are laid out by department and California state government policies” and that “unfortunately, the donation was not submitted in accordance with these policies.”
E-40 and a representative from Tom’s Town distillery have reportedly worked closely with the government and prison officials to ensure that the sanitizer met FDA and state correctional guidelines.
Adnan Khan, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Re:Store Justice who was formerly incarcerated, first brought the news to attention on Twitter after speaking with multiple people at SQ who said they had not received E-40’s Tom’s Town hand sanitizer.
At the age of 18, Khan was sentenced to 25 years to life under the Felony/Murder rule. During his time in prison, he worked on the Felony/Murder rule legislation with his organization, Re:Store Justice. The bill passed and after serving 16 years –– the last four in San Quentin –– Adnan was the first person re-sentenced under the bill he helped create in January 2019.
Near the end of July, Khan released a piece dedicated to his friend who recently died in SQ due to COVID-19, calling his death “entirely preventable.”
“His death was preventable and his safety should’ve been prioritized. He tested negative on June 25 and then died on July 25. He was mixed with positive cases after he tested negative,” Khan said. “San Quentin doesn’t have anything under control.”
In his blog, entitled “Proximity Hurts,” Khan laments the overwhelming indifference felt toward incarcerated people as further seen by the SQ crisis. His organization’s slogan, “from proximity to policy,” describes the empathy he is able to feel after being around those incarcerated for so long.
“Society saw my friend as someone who was not deserving of dignity. They believe the person who did the crime deserved to die of COVID-19,” Khan continues. “They chose not to acknowledge his humanity. My friend was neglected and he is one of millions of examples of other incarcerated people identical to him.”
CDCR Comparisons – California and the US
According to the Marshall Project, California prisons remain fourth in the country in number of confirmed cases, following Texas, Federal and Florida prisons – making up nearly 9.6% of total cases among incarcerated people. California makes up 6% of the total deaths in prison.
There have been at least 1,892 cases of coronavirus reported among prison staff. Eight staff members have died while 882 have recovered.
CDCR and CCHCS Precautions
Because of the consistent downward trend of cases at San Quentin, the 6 temporary tents at San Quentin are beginning to be removed.
San Quentin experienced the worst outbreak of COVID-19 in the CDCR system, having 2,221 at its highest point. Since early July, the number of active cases has declined, and there are currently 175 active cases.
The tents were put in on July 9th in order to provide more housing for treatment and isolation. Since then, CDCR also allotted a separate warehouse for housing as well. So far, CDCR has only announced the closing of the tents.
CDCR also announced that on July 7th, people at the California Institute for Women (CIW) in Chino will have a different eating schedule because of staffing shortages. They are being switched to two cold meals a day (lunch and breakfast) and one hot (dinner).
As discussed above, CDCR is continuing releases. The qualifications for release have not changed, despite calls to release those who are incarcerated on violent charges as well.
CDCR continues to use temperature and verbal screenings for everyone entering CDCR facilities, and are providing hand sanitizer and masks to all incarcerated people and staff.
For more details on CDCR and CCHCS protocol, refer to the Interim Guidance for Health Care and Public Health Providers.