California Correctional Crisis: Mass Incarceration, Healthcare, and the COVID-19 Outbreak

By Alex Morgan and Mianna Muscat

SAN FRANCISCO— UC Hastings College of the Law held its third and final day last week of a webinar series entitled California Correctional Crisis: Mass Incarceration, Healthcare, and the COVID-19 Outbreak, featuring panel discussions focusing on immigration detention, COVID-19, and vaccination of incarcerated populations.

The event was held by the law school’s Race and Poverty Law Journal, Women’s Law Journal, and Journal of Crime and Punishment, with the support of the Institute for Criminal Justice.

“As journalists, we are committed to promoting discourse in our community regarding issues of incarceration, the criminal justice system, and gender, racial, and socioeconomic disparities in our legal system,” said Elizabeth Peters, a Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal editor.

The first part of the conference focused on immigration detention.

The event moderator Blaine Buckey, Legal Director at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at Hastings, explained how America’s immigration detention, the largest in the world, has transformed over the last few decades into a multi-million dollar industry.

“The immigration detention system, like our criminal justice system, has come under increasing scrutiny and has been roundly criticized as punitive, not designed to protect the public, but instead to feed corporate interest and serve as a deterrent to future migrants,” said Buckey.

According to Buckey, last year had the highest deaths in immigration custody in more than a decade. She explained that there have been many calls to abolish the current immigration detention system, and that President Biden has indicated support for seeking alternatives.

“We might be entering a new era, and that is thanks in large part to the tireless work of so many across the state of California and the United States more broadly, particularly including those on our panel today,” said Buckey.

Attorney Lisa Knox, Legal Director of the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice, spoke about one of the main issues surrounding immigration detention centers: location.

Attorney Knox discussed that detention centers are purposely located in remote areas to prevent inmates from accessing their loved ones and legal counsel, situated far from law offices and nonprofits. They are barred from the support they need to fight for their liberation.

Activist Joe Mejia, an immigrant and formerly incarcerated individual who works for advocacy around immigration detention, highlighted Attorney Knox’s views by sharing his experiences.

“We don’t even have a right to legal representation. So if you don’t have money, you can’t afford a lawyer, you’re basically on your own. And I don’t think that’s right when we’re considering that this is by law considered a civil matter,” said Mejia.

He added, “When there are people fighting criminal cases for murder, rape, whatever it is, they have the right to legal counsel, why do we not have legal counsel when it is not even criminal?”

Attorney Knox explained that the reason is profit.

“Almost all of these are privately run facilities … they are being run by corporations like the GEO Group and Core Civic that are actually profiting from keeping people in cages,” said Attorney Knox.

Due to the pandemic, legal advocacy groups and other activists like Mejia have successfully gotten inmates released from detention centers. Attorney Knox estimates that only about a quarter of the nearly 7,000 detention beds are occupied. But there are still several issues surrounding how the detention center’s deals with COVID-19.

The second part of the conference focused on vaccination and incarcerated populations.

Dorit Reiss, a vaccine law expert professor, Margot Mendelson of the Prison Law Office, Sam Lewis of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, and infectious diseases expert professor Peter Chin Hong all discussed the major issue of vaccinations and their accessibility within incarcerated populations, general health and safety, and necessity.

Dr. Chin Hong first discussed four topics integral to COVID-19, the vaccination, and incarcerated populations.

“Why prisons and jails are such a huge hotspot for the transmission of diseases, who exactly is in the prison population from the medical perspective, why we are even talking about consequences and the impacts it has on incarcerated individuals, and why vaccinations are important as well as any barriers that may be faced when addressing these topics,” Dr. Hong asked.

Dr. Hong described prison and jail conditions as poor environments as they are not designed to be modified for COVID-19 restrictions. The ability to social distance is not a likely possibility, resources to wash hands regularly and bathe or even sleep within a six foot radius of someone is nearly impossible.

The jails and prisons themselves are also not designed with the best ventilation in mind. Dr. Hong describes it as far worse than any indoor dining during this pandemic, as most incarcerated populations rarely get to go outside.

The populations recognized from the medical perspective within the jails and prisons are much older with other issues of comorbidity that heighten the risk of getting the virus. Dr. Hong discussed the importance of community health and why it is so important that incarcerated populations are included in that discussion.

People move back and forth from prison and the outside world, Dr. Peter says, and “we’re not only talking about this because of the consequences of impact on incarcerated individuals, we’re talking about this because prison health is community health, and it really is not in our best interest to really silo prison health from community health, it affects all of us.”

Dr. Reiss spoke next and discussed the efficacy of the vaccine, how it is approved and administered, and why it should be given primarily to incarcerated populations.

“Right now, we’re vaccinating healthcare workers and long-term care residents. We’re about to go to certain essential workers and older ages. People in corrections are not here. In other words, the new framework does not really address the needs to vaccinate and protect people in corrections,” Dr. Reiss said.

A lot of these misconceptions on the vaccine are due to a lack of education, Dr. Reiss added, noting there is a reasonable amount of information on the vaccine even though it has only been a few months.

Margot Mendelson followed and discussed the necessity of vaccine allocations for incarcerated people and about where California is at with respect to the vaccine rollouts in the state prison system and the county jails.

“Even in the best of times these spaces are unacceptable, people live in disgusting old buildings with leaky roofs, moldy walls, they are susceptible to extreme heat and cold,” she said, adding many county jails are poorly ventilated buildings that provide limited access to fresh air.

Margot emphasized, “If for coronavirus we’re going to design an ideal home it would design a prison.”

Sam Lewis closed off the panel by sharing the views of incarcerated people as he himself was incarcerated for around 24 years.

Lewis shared that many incarcerated people have a lot of distrust surrounding vaccines because they are uneducated about them. When people are incarcerated, no one seems to care about what happens and there have been several instances where incarcerated populations have been taken advantage of, he said.

Lewis then described the Tuskegee experiments and others that were done on populations and said that “there’s reason for distrust, there’s reason for us not to believe that if you say you’re going to give me a vaccine, it’s not something else.”

Lewis also pointed to state power and responsibility.

“In our state power, wealth, and privilege determines who’s hurt when it comes to medical care. That’s just the truth…They (incarcerated populations) are the responsibility of the state and the state answers to who the voters and taxpayers are. So ultimately their health, their wellbeing, their lives, are our responsibility,” said Lewis, adding, “We must be able to make sure that we take care of those that can’t fend for themselves.”

Mianna is a senior at UC Davis studying English Literature and Japanese. She loves reading, archery, playing the guitar, and singing.

Alex Morgan is a 3rd year Political Science Major at Westmont College. She is originally from Santa Barbara, California

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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