As California Prepares to Release up to 8,000 Inmates, Advocates Ask What's Next

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Ceasar McDowell, back right, after his recent release from San Quentin State Prison, with his brother Mitchell, back left, Rialto Mayor Debora Roberston, front right, and Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren. (Courtesy of Ceasar McDowell)

Ceasar McDowell was released from San Quentin State Prison on June 26, his pre-scheduled release date — unrelated to the coronavirus — after serving a 20-year sentence on a three strikes violation.

The 46-year-old from Rialto, California spent his last four days in the prison’s COVID-19 ward, even though he had no symptoms and never received the results of the coronavirus test he had taken as a “just-in-case” measure, he said.

McDowell said those final days — sitting in a cell with men coughing all around him — were some of the most brutal of his entire incarceration.

McDowell’s family had driven all the way from Southern California and Oregon to see him walk out of the prison’s gates, and he planned to have a celebratory breakfast with them before they drove him to his transitional housing arrangement in Van Nuys, California.

But that morning, instead of being greeted by his family, McDowell was handcuffed, placed in a van and driven seven hours south to Corona, California where he would have to spend several weeks in mandatory quarantine at a hotel that prison officials were using to house inmates exposed to the virus.

“They stole that moment from my family,” McDowell said. “All those years your family waits to come pick you up — your mom, your grandma. It was all of them at the gate.”

Ceasar McDowell in the office of Unite the People, the organization he runs with his brother. (Courtesy Ceasar McDowell)

After 11 days, McDowell was released from the hotel, where his brother came to pick him up. At no point during his ordeal did he receive his test results. Now, he has been left in the lurch, unsure if his transitional housing spot is even still available.

“Restricted movements and last-minute transportation plans can occur based upon COVID-19 testing and requests to participate in the program,” a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) official told KQED.

McDowell’s account offers a first look at the prisoner reentry process during the COVID-19 pandemic, as CDCR grapples with how to quickly release thousands of additional inmates into an under-resourced system.

Pressure to Release

Until late May, San Quentin had remained untouched by the coronavirus. That quickly changed when a group of 121 incarcerated people from the California Institution for Men in Chino were transferred to the Marin County facility without being tested immediately beforehand.

The subsequent outbreak inside the prison — of more than 2,000 cumulative positive cases, resulting in at least 12 deaths — sparked widespread outcry among inmates’ families, criminal justice advocates and state lawmakers, who held an oversight hearing on the situation in early July.

Two weeks ago, CDCR officials announced that as many as 8,000 people — about 7% of the state prison population — would be released from prisons across California by the end of August in order to slow the spread of the virus. Inmates with 180 days or less left on the sentences, serving nonviolent, non-sex offense crimes, would be prioritized, as would inmates over 65 with chronic conditions or respiratory illnesses like asthma, officials said

Though prisoner advocacy groups and health experts say the announcement is a step in the right direction, many doubt the likelihood CDCR will meet that target, and argue that far more inmates need to be released to effectively control the outbreak.

A study by public health experts at UC Berkeley and UCSF published in late-June recommended San Quentin cut its prison population by more than 50% in order to effectively quell the spread of the virus.

UC Berkeley public health professor Stefano Bertozzi, who co-authored the study, argues that nonviolent inmates with hypertension and diabetes should also be considered for early release

“They don't have to do their time now if they're not a danger to the community. And they're certainly a danger to themselves and to the community if they're in a prison where the transmission can happen so easily,” Bertozzi said, who hopes prison officials will consider more sweeping releases.

Risk Assessment

Some advocates also argue that CDCR’s policy to only consider releasing inmates without violent or sex crime convictions can lead to arbitrary decisions.

“For example, you can have a robbery from a Safeway, where someone is walking out with a box of donuts or something really low level and they get into a scuffle with a security guard and push him,” said Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods.


Some officials, he explained, might consider that a violent crime, while others might not, a decision that could potentially block many inmates from release who don’t pose any real threat of violence.

The established thresholds for release also create a paradoxical situation, said UC Hastings law professor Hadar Aviram, because inmates convicted of violent crimes often serve longer sentences and many have consequently grown old in prison, putting them at greater risk of transmission.

“These categories are ignoring the obvious,” she said, adding that many of these older inmates — regardless of what crime they committed long ago — are “pretty much the ideal population to release.”

“These are people, given everything that we know from criminology, who have aged out of crime,” she said. “They don't actually pose a risk to public safety.”

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Gov. Gavin Newsom noted as much at a briefing in late June, pointing out that San Quentin was known as a place for “rehabilitation” especially among older inmates, where 42% of the prison’s incarcerated population “is deemed medically vulnerable.”

But at a press conference several days later, in response to mounting pressure to release inmates, Newsom said he didn’t want inmates to be released without concrete plans in place for them.

“The question is, do you make a bad situation worse by releasing someone that's not ready to be released because they don't have a place to stay?” he said.

That factor is of particular concern for Dr. Bertozzi, who said some inmates may find themselves in situations far worse than what Cesar McDowell experienced, potentially exposed to COVID-19 with nowhere to safely quarantine.

He suggests CDCR provide people coming out of San Quentin with motel, or “unused hospital” rooms where “people can spend a couple of weeks and be tested and then go back to their communities once they've finished their quarantine.”

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“We need to be very careful about not taking the infections in San Quentin and introducing them into communities,” Bertozzi said.

Where Do They Go?

In order to prevent the spread of the virus, post-incarceration, CDCR developed an initiative called ‘Project Hope’, placing recently released inmates who may have tested positive or been exposed to the virus into hotel rooms for up to 14 days. It seeks to “protect formerly incarcerated people who are at risk for homelessness or housing instability, and the communities to which they are returning,” officials said.

The program launched May 3, and to date has sheltered more than 125 people in 60 hotels across 30 counties, according to CDCR spokesperson Jeffrey Callison.

The Board of State and Community Corrections said it approved $15 million from its federal emergency COVID-19 funding to be allocated to CDCR so the department can provide more housing for inmates being released. But it is still unclear if the accommodations will be an expansion of traditional transitional housing — a group home setting where people released from long sentences temporarily stay before moving to permanent housing. These types of programs are normally required by the state Parole Board.

Housing is, of course, just one of the many challenges that people recently released from prison face — particularly during a pandemic, when job opportunities are scarce and support services stretched thin.

As for McDowell, he said he’s ready for his life to begin again. After 11 days spent at the Project Hope hotel, he was released on July 7 and is hoping to be able to continue staying with his brother, with whom he runs a legal aid organization. McDowell said the transitional home he was supposed to go to is now on lockdown because of the virus, and now the prospect of going there feels like facing a six-month prison term.

“I might have to go lock in somewhere and be cut off from the world again for however many months it takes for them to open up for transitional houses, so that I'm not happy about,” he said. “That's bothering me. That stays on my head every single second, every single day.”

In a statement released last week, Jennifer Shaffer, the executive officer of the Board of Parole hearings, said the Board would “evaluate alternative placements for people … given the potential impact of COVID-19 on group living environments,” with consideration of “pro-social friend or relative.”

McDowell is hoping that will be the case for him.

“I don't think I'll have any problem transitioning into life,” he said. “I just want to get started.”

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