By Julietta Bisharyan and Nick Gardner
In an excerpt shared with The Marshall Project, incarcerated writer Michele Scott testifies to the conditions within the world’s largest women’s prison and recalls events surrounding the death of a close friend.
For four months, Scott and fellow incarcerated individuals struggled to adapt to their new way of life at the Central California Women’s Facility amidst the global coronavirus pandemic.
As is typical among CDCR institutions, Scott and her eight cellmates spend the majority of their days confined in a unit that the writer likens to a “one-car garage.”
“Can you picture it? The sides of your car barely a few feet from the enclosing walls. Now remove the car and replace it with four metal double-bunk beds, eight 12-foot lockers, two sinks, a table and a chair. Wait, now throw in a small bathroom stall and a separate shower stall.” writes Scott.
Even with restricted access to technology, Scott and company were able to follow as the pandemic ushered in panic and confusion outside of the prison walls. The women laughed as footage depicted shoppers grappling over purchase-limited commodities such as toilet paper and wipes— a phenomenon known to those at the Central California Women’s Facility as a “Wednesday.”
But other footage was more somber in nature.
Scott and her cellmates watched in angst as news depicted hospitals overrun with patients and short on ventilators.
“We looked at each other, estimating that our massive prison might have two of these machines.* Maybe. The reality of our position became unnervingly clear. We had, as they say in prison, nothing coming.”
Shortly after, Scott was notified of the condition of Angel Marie Kozeak, a close friend who had served 44 years of a life sentence. Kozeak was jaundiced and bedridden, suffering from aggressive pancreatic cancer with kidney and liver failure. Kozeak was diagnosed on April 8th, and after a brutal decline, passed on May 6th.
As a member of the Comfort Care team, Scott played a role in organizing Kozeak’s memorial. Scott oversaw logistics such as the placement of tables and chairs, as well as how traffic was to be directed. Her goal was to organize the memorial in such a manner that limited physical contact while still allowing for intimacy, however many guards were “sour-faced” that such an event was taking place while the prison was on lockdown.
For hours, Scott and her team of women set up decorations such as cardstock butterflies, lights, and an eave. With limited resources, the women had to be creative. One poster was constructed from repurposed trash cans, and a cutout guitar with angel wings was propped up by an “out of bounds” sign from the prison yard.
As visitors began to arrive and greet those that they had seen for 3 months, Scott was met with the sounds of conversation and laughter.
“Voices shared concerns about family on the outside. Remarks were made on hair that had grown long. More than one woman complained about her “COVID 15,” those pesky pounds gained on lockdown. Then there was the comparison of notes: How locked down is your unit? Are you getting your laundry time or phone time?”
Conversations varied, from whose officers were the bigger nuisances, stories about roommates, and the status work within the prison. Many conversations contained grim news, such as the death of a friend or relative.
Amongst attendees was a steady mix of women who knew Angel and those who had admired her from a distance.
“Many of the women had been touched by Angel’s “original gangster” wisdom. She’d been tremendously respected for her ability to lay out prison rules to the newbies. We talked about how she took the time to listen and how she had really turned it around. She conquered addiction, stopped acting out and eventually landed in an honor dorm, thriving and making it happen,” Scott wrote.
For Scott and many others, Angel’s memorial served as a morale boost in such a dark and uncertain time.
“That experience reminds me of the importance of having a space for people, for women in prison, to breathe into.”
CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes
As of Sept. 18, there are a total of 12,552 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 1,299 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 12% of the cases are active in custody while 3% have been released while active. Roughly 84% of confirmed cases have been resolved.
An incarcerated individual died at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (CVSP) this week, marking the 60th death throughout the CDCR system and the third at that institution
Active cases at San Quentin have reduced to 5 –– the lowest case count since the beginning of the outbreak in early June. There have only been three new cases there in the last two weeks.
Folsom State Prison (FSP) has the highest amount of new active cases in the last two weeks, 460 –– surpassing Avenal State Prison. 410 of those cases have been from this week alone.
The outbreak at FSP, which has now lasted over a month, is growing rapidly with 949 confirmed cases among incarcerated persons and 47 among the staff.
There have been no deaths at FSP among the incarcerated population, however, the California Prison Industry Authority confirmed to The Sacramento Bee last month that one of its employees who’d worked at FSP had died of COVID-19.
“The department is monitoring the situation very closely,” CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas told The Bee in an emailed statement. “There is an incident command post which is in coordination with the court appointed Federal Receiver at the prison. We have, since the beginning of the outbreak, implemented serial testing for inmates, increased staffing, and facilitated isolation for those that have tested positive to COVID-19.”
As of Monday, Sacramento County noted on its data dashboard for COVID-19 activity that FSP cases are now being counted as part of unincorporated territory. Previously, they had been added to the count for the city of Folsom. This shift has led the city’s all-time infection total to drop from more than 720 last week to about 370 this week, as Capital Public Radio reported.
In the last two weeks, Valley State Prison (VSP) has tested the most –– 89% of its population, and California Institution for Women (CIW) has tested the least –– just 9%.
The population of incarcerated persons has decreased by 22,797 since the beginning of the prison outbreaks in March. There are currently 99,612 individuals incarcerated in the CDCR facilities –– a decrease of 1,068 since last week.
There have been 3,417 staff cases in the CDCR facilities. 914 are currently active and 2,503 have returned to work.
There have been 509 new confirmed cases in the past week.
Since last Friday, four employees at California’s Men’s Colony (CMC) have tested positive.
Effect of CDCR Outbreaks on the Public
The recent passing of a 61-year-old San Quentin inmate has prompted the first wrongful death lawsuit against the state of California relating to the coronavirus pandemic.
The claim is being brought forth by the family of Daniel Ruiz, a nonviolent drug offender eligible for the CDCR’s early release program. Ruiz is amongst 27 incarcerated individuals and employees who have passed from COVID-19 at San Quentin.
The family is citing prison officials’ failure to transfer sick individuals as the cause of death.
Around May 30th, San Quentin accepted 121 transfers– many of whom had not been tested in three or four weeks–from the California Institution for Men, which at the time was experiencing a steep incline in positive cases. Prior to May 30th, there were no reported cases of COVID-19 at San Quentin. As of today, that number exceeds 2,200.
Known as the site of California’s death row, San Quentin still holds many low-level offenders eligible for early release under CDCR guidelines. One such individual was Ruiz, who had been notified of his eligibility in late March.
Prior to his passing on July 11, Ruiz had been identified as one of 40,000 high-risk incarcerated individuals due to underlying asthma and other health conditions.
Unbeknownst to his mother, children and siblings, Ruiz had spent two weeks fighting the virus in prison’s hospital prior to his death.
“Daniel suffered alone while the CDCR kept his mom, kids and siblings in the dark about his condition,” said attorney Julia Sherwin.
As for the claim, Ruiz’s family is alleging that the prison’s combination of tight quarters, poor ventilation, and an older at-risk population was known to correctional officers but ignored, warranting a high risk of morbidity.
The claim is also alleging that prison officials conducted improper testing.
CDCR Comparisons – California and the US
According to the Marshall Project, California prisons rank fourth in the country for the highest number of confirmed cases, following Texas, Florida and Federal prisons. California makes up 9.6% of total cases among incarcerated people and 5.6% of the total deaths in prison.
There have been at least 3,336 cases of coronavirus reported among prison staff. 9 staff members have died while 2,305 have recovered.
Division of Juvenile Justice
As of Sept. 18, there are no active cases of COVID-19 among youth at DJJ facilities, and 68 cases have been resolved.