Advocates call on CA Gov. Gavin Newsom to release more prison inmates in light of COVID-19

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Advocates are calling on California Gov. Gavin Newsom to release thousands of prison inmates who may be vulnerable to COVID-19.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, or CURB, has advocated for the release of inmates who have committed serious offenses as well as those who are especially vulnerable to the disease, including those over the age of 50 and those with at least one serious medical condition. Newsom recently released 3,500 inmates who were considered ready for parole and committed nonviolent offenses.

Approximately 37% of California’s 122,135 inmates have at least one health factor that increases their risk of dying from COVID-19, according to a CURB press release. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR, there are 69 inmates and 83 state employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 as of April 16.

“We need to have enough people released from those institutions so that those who have to remain can be spread out far enough that they are safe,” said Richard Speiglman, chair of the Interfaith Coalition for Justice in our Jails. “There are too many people for the capacity and too many people for the public health conditions.”

California’s prison system is currently operating at about 130% of the occupancy it was designed for, according to Jonathan Simon, Lance Robbins Professor of Criminal Justice Law at the UC Berkeley School of Law.

Speiglman alleged that it is not possible for inmates to practice social distancing and that facilities are not regularly cleaned. He added that with overcapacity, there is no space to move inmates around to clean cells.

“There is a lot of concern among the local leaders about crime,” Simon said. “But we are talking about the many prisoners in our system who are quite old or medically compromised or people who have committed the violent crimes decades ago and do not pose a risk to safety.”

CDCR spokesperson Dana Simas said that the CDCR is working to tackle COVID-19 by suspending intake from county jails, instituting a two-week modified program to limit inmate movement at institutions and releasing 3,500 inmates. The CDCR is also looking to increase social distancing by utilizing some vacant spaces and providing masks to those involved in transfers.

Alameda County has released 30% of the individuals in custody, according to Speiglman. He alleged that the state should release individuals more regularly and that there should be more reforms in place.

“Refusing to allow people who have been convicted of serious crimes an opportunity to be safe is contrary to the legal responsibility of the state of California that has to protect the people that are in their custody,” said Brian Kaneda, the Los Angeles coordinator of CURB. “They are human beings. They deserve dignity and the ability to survive the pandemic.”

Nina Narahari is the lead crime and courts reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ninanarahari_dc.