Pressure Mounts for Newsom to Release Vulnerable Incarcerated People

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The pressure mounts as incarcerated people from San Quentin State Prison continue to be hospitalized and die due to COVID-19 complications. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A federal judge is pushing Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state officials to release more inmates to reduce the spread of the coronavirus inside California's prisons.

The pressure mounts as incarcerated people from San Quentin State Prison continue to be hospitalized and die due to COVID-19 complications.

During an emergency hearing Monday, U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar expressed appreciation to Newsom for the expedited releases he has granted, acknowledging that they are not “politically popular.” However, Tigar stressed that incarcerated people are still dying and there is a looming threat of more outbreaks across the state.

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“I do not expect, ever, to hear any public health guidance to the contrary of the point that it is impossible to adequately respond to this disease without inmate release,” he said.

The outbreak at San Quentin is the largest in the state prison system. About 1,400 people incarcerated there have tested positive, and 62 are being treated at outside hospitals across the Bay Area. Several inmates have died from complications.

There are currently about 113,000 people in prisons across the state. Officials have released 3,500 people since March through an expedited parole process.

During his press conference Monday, Newsom said that addressing the outbreak at San Quentin is one of his top priorities.

“I'm going through individual-by-individual people with medical needs that are acute,” he said. “We are fast-tracking, expediting parole review and individually reviewing those cases in order to move people forward”

The governor also acknowledged that the transfer of 121 people from the California Institution for Men in Chino to San Quentin — widely believed to have caused the outbreak — was a mistake.

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Newsom said his office is working with probation and parole officers to identify adequate housing for people who are released.

While Judge Tigar is not permitted to grant releases on his own, Don Specter, the lawyer representing incarcerated people in a longstanding lawsuit over prison health care, asked the judge to once again consider convening a three-judge panel, which would be able to grant more releases.

In the meantime, Tigar asked the federal receiver in charge of health care for the state prison system, Clark Kelso, to determine the space and staffing needs of all 35 prisons in quelling COVID-19 outbreaks.

The reports from San Quentin show the bleak situation inside: both inmates and advocates report that people who have tested positive for the virus are no longer being moved to isolation, since there are no secure spaces left. Instead, they say, some inmates who test positive are being left in their cells with cellmates who have tested negative.

Specter said his office has heard of cases where people who test negative "have been housed with people who are positive."

“It’s a terrible thing to do," he said.

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Brian Asey is serving a life sentence at San Quentin. During a phone interview, he said that medical alarms go off regularly — alerting staff that someone in the building needs medical attention.

“I’ve been in prison over 20 years and I’ve never seen nothing like this. Never,” Asey said. “This is something out of a scary movie or something. It’s terrible.”

Judge Tigar is expected to issue an updated order on next steps for the prison soon.