Incarceration should not be a death sentence: Covid-19 at San Quentin

For Juneteenth, I wrote a blog post about remembering those in prison, especially in the face of the covid-19 outbreaks happening in prisons throughout the country.

In that post, I lightly touched on the ways that a botched transfer of inmates from CIM Chino to San Quentin led the case count to grow from 0 to 47 in a span of weeks.

Nearly a month later, the count is now officially at 1,302 infections (as of Wednesday). 12 inmates have died, including at least 4 who were on death row.

And I am both deeply angered and saddened by this.

As somebody who has spent some significant time doing work inside prisons, leading faith-based programming at prisons like San Quentin, CSP Solano, DVI Tracy, and FCI Dublin, I am thinking about the already inhumane ways that incarcerated siblings are treated, the liberties and dignity they are already stripped of.

Program graduation inside CSP Solano in 2017

And I am grieving the ways that a pandemic exponentially impacts incarcerated individuals, in ways that are being ignored and deprioritized in these challenging times. Too often, our incarcerated siblings are seen as less worthy of help, attention, time, and resources and their human rights are often disregarded because they are labeled as “criminals.”

And I lament.

I lament the ways that much of the outbreak at San Quentin was caused by a horribly botched transfer bringing 194 inmates from CIM Chino, an institution where there had already been covid-19 outbreaks. Assemblyman Marc Levine recently called this decision “The worst prison health screwup in state history.”

I lament the ways that the overcrowded condition of the prison, the lack of PPE, insufficient resources, and inadequate testing have all led to massive spread. I lament the ways that proper action is not being taken to care for and isolate those who are sick.

I lament the ways that prison officials at San Quentin had a chance to prepare for outbreaks, but denied motions and measures to adequately prepare the institution before covid started spreading.

I lament the ways that those who are getting sick are being held in the solitary confinement unit -the Badger Unit- at San Quentin, where conditions are unlivable and inhumane. Many who are sick are refusing to get tested, fearing that they will be placed in the Badger unit. At least 20 inmates being held in these cells have gone on a hunger strike.

I lament the ways that criminal justice policies in the 80s and 90s, such as the War on Drugs and the Three Strikes Law have led to a high percentage of aging inmates at institutions like San Quentin, making many them more vulnerable to covid-19. I lament the ways that many men at San Quentin, including many I got to know in my time as a volunteer, have spent the majority of their life — (30–40 years!) inside prisons, and that some will potentially die there.

I lament the ways that men who are being released from prison in this time will not be able to celebrate their freedom. In response to public outcry, the state recently decided to release at least 8,000 inmates from California prisons. Yet even as people are released, they won’t truly be ‘free’ as they will return to a world in pandemic, with very little access to the jobs, support, resources, and relational connection they need to successfully re-enter society. The challenges for those leaving prisons and entering the covid-19 economy are immense.

I lament the ways that the poor, vulnerable, and especially Black, Latinx, and Native communities are disproportionately impacted by the generations of overincarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system, reminding us that a pandemic does not affect all communities in the same way. Generational trauma and historic racism continue to cause deadlier health outcomes for black and brown communities.

Photo: Paul Chinn / SF Chronicle

So much of what is happening reveals our nation’s toxic narratives of meritocracy, retributive violence, and white supremacy, which have sadly, all been connected to toxic theologies in the American church as well.

In these challenging times, the Church has a special call to “remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoner” (Hebrews 13:3). As the family of God, we must continue to ask ourselves:

How do we love our incarcerated neighbors as ourselves?

How do we continue to uphold the dignity of all human life, and not deny basic liberties, human rights, and life to our incarcerated siblings?

How do we continue to remember a population of people that society has intentionally discarded and hidden away?

How can we continue to note that to serve these siblings, is to serve and encounter the face of Jesus- our Messiah who was wrongfully charged, tried, and executed by state-sanctioned violence?

Let us not forget that those who are in San Quentin, and prisons all across the country, are still human beings, made in the image of God, no matter what they have been accused of or what crimes they have committed. Let us continue to remember, pray for, and serve these siblings in these challenging times.

If you’d like to take action, here are a couple ways to do so:

  1. Use your voice.
Contact info for officials to call
  • Follow Ella Baker Center’s campaign #StopSanQuentinOutbreak for more tips on how to advocate during this pandemic
  • Advocate for an end to ICE transfers for those incarcerated during this pandemic.

2. Donate care packages and critical supplies to inmates.

  • Re:Store Justice: Give here to donate hygiene products, cleaning supplies, and extra food for those on lockdown in prisons through covid
  • Prison University Project Covid Relief Care packages — Donate to help send care packages directly to San Quentin inmates. These packages include nutritious food, personal protective equipment, pen and paper, and important articles about covid and hygiene.

3. Support Organizations doing re-entry work.

As the state gets ready for the release of incarcerated peoples because of covid, consider supporting the work of re-entry organizations who will need volunteers, donations, and support to take on challenging work on a broader scale. Some orgs you may support include:

Co-Pastor @bethelcommunitysl | Director of Advocacy @fphayward | pastor, activist, writer | married to @eubanksme | co-author of @lentenlament | she/her

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