'Incarceration Should Not Mean a Death Sentence': Advocates Want a Plan to Stop COVID-19 Spread in San Quentin

Caitlin Haynes stands with a protest sign near San Quentin State Prison. Haynes' fiance is a San Quentin inmate.  (Sara Hossaini/KQED)

A COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin State Prison reached 800 positive cases as of Sunday, rippling fear through the loved ones of those incarcerated there.

Hoping to save lives, more than 150 protestors gathered at the entrance of San Quentin state prison Sunday and called for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to transfer inmates to non-prison facilities.

"When it comes to my son, the one that I gave birth to and carried for nine months, they don't have the right to take his life," said Shawanda Scott, whose 34-year-old son, Carrington Russelle, is serving a 12-year term.

Scott said, "I'm demanding that they're freed and able to come home to their loved ones, and be tested. I'm demanding that there's no more transfers of loved ones that can cause more COVID to go rampant."

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Demonstrators also demanded Gov. Gavin Newsom grant mass clemency to reduce overcrowding and stop corrections authorities from allowing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from detaining prison parolees.

Protesters were joined by Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods, who said all inmates who are "low-risk" to the public should be released.

State department of corrections administrators have faced intense criticism for failing to test vulnerable inmates transferred to San Quentin from a prison in Chino. City officials in Lassen County’s state prison have also said inmates transferred from San Quentin appear to be the source of an outbreak there.

More than 150 gather for a rally outside San Quentin State Prison on Sunday, June 28, 2020. (Sara Hossaini/KQED)

The protest was organized by Ella Baker Center and Re:Store Justice. "Incarceration should not mean a death sentence," the organizations wrote in their organizing materials.

Assemblymember Marc Levine (D-Marin County) has called on federal courts to replace J. Clark Kelso, who is responsible for prison health care. Earlier in May, Levine asked for plans to address a possible COVID-19 infection surge at the prison and ensure that limited hospital capacity in the North Bay would be able to safely accommodate civilian and prisoner patients, according to a press release.

On a call last week, Kelso said his decision to transfer inmates from Chino to San Quentin was done "too quickly" and a "big mistake," according to a press release from Levine's office on Friday.

As Levine said during a floor debate and vote on the revised state budget proposal: "Unrestrained COVID-19 infections at San Quentin State Prison is creating the worst prison health catastrophe in state history. The current rate of infections at San Quentin tells us that the worst is yet to come."