For the incarcerated, fear and loss of family contact as officials struggle to keep virus at bay Court shutdowns mean justice delayed for many

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 By Julie Reynolds Martinez

There are two state prisons in the Monterey Bay region — Salinas Valley State Prison and the Correctional Training Facility, where more than 8,000 men live on a sprawling “campus” north of Soledad. With thousands of workers — correctional officers, teachers, nurses, clergy, counselors — coming in and out daily, the place is really a small village.

Here, under the strobe-like shadows of two giant wind turbines that supply the prisons with power, the COVID-19 pandemic looms outside the gates and razor wire.

As of this writing, there are now six reported cases of COVID-19 in state prisons, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Five of the cases are staff members, two at California State Prison, Sacramento (known as New Folsom), two at the California Institution for Men in Chino and one at Folsom State Prison. (Officials had earlier reported a case at San Quentin, but attorney Michael Bien, who represents prisoners in one of the state’s longest-running class action lawsuits, said CDCR staff told him the San Quentin employee contracted the virus on a cruise ship and never entered the facility while sick.)

One inmate case was confirmed Sunday at California State Prison in Lancaster.

Sarah, a professional working woman in her 30s, normally visits her husband every other weekend at the lower-security Correctional Training Facility in Soledad. It’s an aging, surreal relic of a prison just south of the stark concrete of Salinas Valley’s maximum security structures. Sarah, who asked that Voices not use her last name, serves on CTF’s Inmate Family Council, part of a statewide group representing families of California prisoners.

She learned last week that visiting has been shut down for all of the state’s prisons. At CTF’s North Facility, visits used to only happen every other weekend because it’s so crowded — the prison is packed to 154 percent of its capacity. Now, in response to the coronavirus outbreak, there are no visits and no rehabilitative programs for inmates.

There are instead long lines to use the phones, which are located outdoors in the yards. Rain or shine, the men line up and wait, often an hour or more, for a 15-minute call home.

Sarah says she feels a mix of emotions about not being able to see her husband “and experience things together, to talk about emotions and things that are going on in this unprecedented time.”

But her priority, she said, is her husband’s health, “especially with the lack of medical access that they have. So if it takes a sacrifice of not being able to visit our loved ones to ensure that they stay safe, then I think that that is a sacrifice that I’m willing to make for the greater good of the population.”

This week, the CDCR shut down rehabilitation programs and self-help groups to lessen the number of “non-sworn” staff — teachers, counselors, clergy and volunteers — coming in from outside. Some inmates said they actually feel safer in the prison right now, at least until a worker brings the virus inside.

“Now suddenly they’re the ‘untouchables,’” one prisoner told Voices.

Corrections staff say they undergo “enhanced verbal health screening” at the facility’s gate near Highway 101.

“So if somebody is running a fever or showing symptoms of a flu-like illness, it’s my understanding that they’re not being allowed to enter,” Sarah said.

Prisoners say CTF is being thoroughly scrubbed and that buckets of diluted bleach with cloths are provided to wipe down phones. The inmates practice social distancing while waiting in phone lines.

The state has stopped short of locking down all prisoners in their cells for a full quarantine.  But since Wednesday, CTF inmates are now fed in their cells, a move Sarah approves of. She said it’s better not to have “a bunch of people in a chow hall where they can’t appropriately social-distance.” She added with a laugh that the last phrase is “probably a word that, when this is all over, none of us ever wants to hear again.”

As of Friday, CTF was on “modified program,” meaning prisoners can only be outside their cells for half a day. But inmates in one yard were frustrated Saturday when officers told them they had to choose between taking a shower or going outside to call home.

Michael Bien is a San Francisco attorney whose work on two landmark lawsuits over prison medical and mental health care, known as Coleman and Plata, led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision to order California to end prison overcrowding. He also sued the Monterey County Jail over its high suicide rates and medical and mental health care (that case was settled in 2015).

Bien told Voices that federal Judge Kimberly J. Mueller, who presides over the Coleman and Plata cases, started a task force on Friday that will meet by phone daily to discuss coronavirus concerns for the incarcerated. Bien is part of that group.

“We don’t purport to be experts on the coronavirus,” Bien said. “But we have a responsibility on behalf of the prisoners to find out what’s going on.”

If prisoners are going to be cut off from visits, Bien said, officials need to “come up with strategies so they can stay in touch.” He also has concerns about shutting down self-help groups, which many prisoners depend on as part of their mental health treatment.

“We also think they need to get more of them out of there, and it has to be as soon as possible,” he said. “It’s a public health crisis. If they don’t reduce the (prison) population significantly, it’s going to be a disaster. It’s like a cruise ship, but with people going in and out three times a day. There are as many staff in those prisons and jails as prisoners.”

People who could be safely released include those set to be discharged in a few months, he said, as well as the elderly and others at high risk of infection. “They need to get the density down,” he said. “I’m very frightened.”

Bien said he’s also tried to pressure Monterey County Jail to release low-risk defendants awaiting trial, but added, “that’s not the kind of thing Monterey likes to do.”

Justice delayed

Meanwhile, courts are closing all over the nation and both Santa Cruz and Monterey County Superior Courts have stopped most activities through the end of March, including many criminal trials.

All California parole hearings have been postponed at least until April and possibly later. The 6th District Court of Appeal, which handles appeals from Santa Cruz and Monterey County courts, has suspended all oral argument sessions indefinitely under an emergency order.

Federal courts in California’s Northern District have suspended jury trials until at least May 1, and the Ninth Circuit court said it will decide on a case-by-case basis whether to hold oral arguments.

All this means that anyone with a pending case affecting their freedom is sure to wait much longer.

Monterey and Santa Cruz County jails have limited visits and activities, but if more jail inmates now see their trials postponed for weeks or months, health risks in those confined spaces could escalate.

A number of state prisoners are also waiting for relief from the courts, relief that continues to be delayed. According to Attorney General Xavier Becerra, at least 140 inmates around the state are waiting for higher court rulings upholding last year’s Senate Bill 1437, a law that revised the state’s felony murder rule. (Disclosure: One of my family members is in this category.)

The revision went into effect in January 2019, yet many inmates who qualify for release under the new rules are lingering in prisons because district attorneys in some counties, including Monterey, have challenged the law’s constitutionality. Cases in those counties are winding through lengthy appeals processes, even as eligible offenders prosecuted in other counties (such as Contra Costa and Los Angeles) have already been freed. Some went home more than a year ago.

The governor’s office also has a growing backlog of commutation applications that many activists expected would be dealt with more swiftly after Gov. Jerry Brown commuted the sentences of more than 150 people.

Prison reform and civil rights groups are now asking Gov. Newsom to speed up commutations and release some prisoners, especially older inmates at high risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. California Attorneys for Criminal Justice president Eric Schweitzer issued a statement Sunday declaring that “COVID-19 is inflicting irreparable harm upon the fair administration of justice in our state. … Courthouses are being closed and the right to timely processes delayed county by county on an ad hoc basis.”

On March 13, a coalition of 29 criminal justice organizations, joined by Bien, sent an urgent letter to Newsom, calling on him “to act immediately to protect the lives of the people impacted by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), including people in custody, staff at CDCR, and the family members and communities of staff and those who are incarcerated.

“At this time, with the coronavirus​ threatening the ​health and lives of untold numbers of people under your care and control, a current prison sentence in California could turn into a death sentence for many,” the letter stated.

The letter called on the governor to:

    1. Release all medically fragile adults and adults over the age of 60 to parole supervision.
    2. Release all people who have anticipated release dates in 2020 and 2021 to parole supervision.
    3. Expedite all review processes for people already found suitable for release, lift holds and expedite the commutation process. ​
    4. Immediately suspend all unnecessary parole meetings.​
    5. Eliminate parole revocations for technical violations.
    6. Lift all fees for calls to family members.
    7. Insist that CDCR adequately address how they will care for people who are incarcerated.

Accelerated releases for some

As reported by the nonprofit justice news website Davis Vanguard, a Sacramento County Superior Court judge recently authorized the local sheriff’s department “to grant accelerated release of (county jail) inmates. Releases can be no more than 30 actual days early of an inmate’s sentence. This order includes misdemeanors and felonies … (this) shall remain in effect until May 31, 2020.”

Other jurisdictions around the country have waived fines and released defendants with misdemeanor charges.

On Tuesday, a wide-ranging cohort of conservative as well as justice-reform organizations sent a letter to Senate leaders Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein and Lindsay Graham, urging them to quickly pass H.R. 4018 in light of COVID-19. The bill, which passed the House unanimously, would streamline the ability of elderly federal prisoners to apply for home confinement.

Back in the Monterey Bay area, Sarah says there’s probably a large percentage of both incarcerated and free individuals who have gone through other trying times in the United States. “But to a lot of us younger individuals, this is kind of our — I’m not going to go so far as to say it’s our Depression or something like that, but it’s a time that we’ve never seen before.”

She said she gives “a shout-out to the administration at CTF” who have kept her informed as the head of the Inmate Family Council.

“They’ve been very conscientious, letting me know what the situation is so that we can inform the visiting population as well. They’re keeping us up to date and reassuring families that they are taking it seriously, and they are trying to do what they can to prevent (the virus) from getting there.

“I think it’s a true testament to who we are as human beings, in just trying to ensure that everybody is safe, and all trying to do our part to be socially responsible.”

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Julie Reynolds Martínez

About Julie Reynolds Martínez

Julie Reynolds Martínez is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Center for Investigative Reporting, The Nation, NPR, PBS, the NewsGuild and other outlets. She is a co-founder of Voices of Monterey Bay.