CCWP welcomes Patricia Wright home amid COVID-19 prison outbreaks
Grassroots advocacy & public support were key to Patricia’s release
July 21, 2020 Patricia Wright, a 69-year-old Black mother and grandmother, survivor of domestic violence, and terminally-ill cancer patient, was released today under emergency order from Governor Newsom. Family, friends, and advocates from the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), a grassroots advocacy group who mobilized for her release, gathered at the California Institution for Women (CIW) this morning to see her wheeled out to freedom. Wright had been serving a sentence of Life Without Possibility of Parole (LWOP) while undergoing chemotherapy for terminal cancer. Patricia is also legally blind and suffers from other serious ailments. Patricia was not eligible for any state COVID-19 release effort, nor for the state’s compassionate release program, because people serving LWOP are excluded from these pathways to release, regardless of terminal illness.
Patricia and her family have been organizing for her release since she was incarcerated, and CCWP has been working with Patricia and her family for 11 years. Advocates and family members expressed their joy at seeing Patricia free and deep gratitude to all who supported her release, including those who signed and circulated her petition. Alfey Ramdhan, Patricia’s youngest son, said, “I haven’t had my mom in so many years. We’ve missed so many milestones, but now I have her back and that motherly love that I’ve been missing for all those years. I feel like I have my security back, my confidence back, which I lost when my mom went to prison when I was 11 or 12.” Patricia’s sister, Chantel Bonet, also shared her family’s joy at finally seeing her free, stating, “Speaking on behalf of the whole family, we thank God, CCWP, and Governor Newsom for his humanitarian act of mercy — releasing Patricia Wright from prison after 23 years due to her terminal cancer amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This has been terrifying for our family. We hope Governor Newsom will show compassion and release more elderly and seriously ill people.”
CCWP advocates emphasized that there are tens of thousands of others in Patricia’s situation still behind bars. Sarah Rodriguez from CCWP said, “While we greatly appreciate Governor Newsom’s action in releasing Patricia Wright, we are concerned with the ongoing exclusion of people serving Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentences from compassionate release, elder parole, and early releases recently announced by CDCR.”
Between 1992–2017, the population of people serving Life Without Parole in the U.S. grew by 400%. California has one of the largest populations of people serving LWOP in the country — many of whom are elderly or medically at-risk. Advocates have urged Governor Newsom to wield his commutation power quickly and decisively to grant relief to those serving LWOP and other extremely long sentences so that they too may have a chance to survive the humanitarian crisis in California prisons that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Please take action today to support the release of more at-risk incarcerated people!
Hear more from Patricia’s family in this Guardian article out today.
Harris, a 44-year-old inmate at a California women’s prison, tested
positive for the coronavirus in mid-May. Since then she has battled a
dry cough, but that’s not the bad part of being sick behind bars.
bad part, she says, is the atmosphere of neglect and chaos that has
taken hold as the virus burns through the California Institution for
Women, a 1,500-inmate prison in Riverside County owned and operated by
the state. The bad part is listening to the screams of her fellow
prisoners and her friends.
is yelling for help over and over and over,” Harris wrote on May 20 in a
running journal of her experiences, which she eventually shared with
prisoner advocacy groups and The Chronicle through a prison email
service called JPay. “No one is coming. This one is scaring me. She
keeps screaming. It’s piercing.”
days earlier, in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, officials
at the institution had transferred many infected prisoners to a part of
the facility once used for training inmates to fight wildfires. There
the prisoners have been quarantined in isolation, with little ability to
leave their cells — even to take showers — and only sporadic access to
email and phone calls.
of these women haven’t showered in four days,” Harris wrote in another
journal entry on May 20. “An inmate ran out of her room when they opened
her door for breakfast and is refusing to go back in. She is screaming
she wants to talk to her family.”
Alvarez sits on her bunk bed, which she had to cover with a
prison-issue blanket. Her bed is in a converted day room shared by 38
women at the California Institution for Women in Corona, where the
inmate population of 1,500 is at an all-time high.Photo: Carlos Chavez / Los Angeles Times
the last two weeks of May, Harris continued to document the shrieks and
pleas of her fellow prisoners. Sometimes, she wrote in her journal, the
women were protesting against the severe conditions in the unit, and
other times they were calling for medical help — seemingly for health
conditions unrelated to the virus, though it wasn’t always clear.
According to Harris’ journal, help often did not arrive in a timely way:
20, 9:30 p.m.: The girls are busting out their windows. The girl next
to me has officially lost her mind. I can hear glass breaking while she
May 23, 2:44 p.m.: Someone is screaming medical emergency. Now everyone is banging [on their cell doors].
26, 7:38 p.m.: People are screaming that they are going to hang
themselves. The banging is the loudest since I’ve been here. Someone
called [that she was having] chest pains. The officer is here. He is
calling for the ambulance. I feel sick.
is just one of thousands of inmates across the state being held in
quarantine as officials struggle to halt raging outbreaks. There are now
3,148 prisoners and 482 employees who have tested positive for the
coronavirus throughout California’s 35 prisons, according to state
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data. The bulk of the cases
are concentrated in six large clusters, one at the women’s prison and
the other five at men’s prisons in Central and Southern California. So
far, 14 prisoners and two staffers have died, and the number of infected
prisoners has risen steeply, multiplying sixfold between May 1 and June
state Corrections Department says it has taken “extraordinary and
unprecedented measures” to fight the virus, spokeswoman Dana Simas said
in an email statement responding to questions from The Chronicle.
according to Harris and six other women prisoners who emailed The
Chronicle through JPay, as well as several advocacy groups that monitor
the California corrections system, the reality of a prison virus
outbreak is messy and dangerous.
women said that in the early days of the outbreak, they were forced by
supervisors to clean areas where infected prisoners had been living,
potentially exposing them to the virus. Later, when some women tested
positive and were sent to isolated areas of the prison, they say they
experienced dirty rooms, shortages of water, few cleaning supplies and
neglect and verbal abuse by guards.
top of that, the prisoners who were isolated after testing positive
received almost no information about what would happen to them, they
said, sparking panic. According to Harris, at least two women under
lockdown tried to commit suicide in late May; one of those women set
fire to the mattress in her cell.
“I feel as if we are being so punished for having this virus,” Harris wrote.
the state spokeswoman, denied many of the women’s allegations and did
not comment on others. But the stories of the prisoners, combined with
rising case numbers at multiple prisons, suggest that the state’s
current strategy is failing.
if a prisoner gets infected, her life, according to sources at the
California Institution for Women, soon becomes a nightmare.
Theriaultodom first heard the term “COVID-19” in March. A prisoner at
the women’s institution, she had been taking a computer coding class,
but that month classes were canceled because of the strange new disease,
she told The Chronicle in an email.
37, said she is serving a sentence of seven years to life for
aggravated mayhem. She said her childhood was shaped “by violence and
abuse,” and she arrived in prison with a fourth-grade education. Since
then, she said, she has earned her G.E.D. and worked toward a degree in
sociology, with emotional support from her friend April Harris.
Normally, they live four doors from each other. Theiraultodom calls
Harris “an awesome person” who “inspires much of my growth.”
The two friends would soon get sick and join each other in lockdown.
April 6, a young woman in Theriaultodom’s housing unit said she did not
feel well and was taken to the hospital. The next day, Theriaultodom
said, “our housing staff put on gloves and a mask to pack [the sick
prisoner’s] property. The mask scared us all pretty bad because this was
our first time seeing an officer with a mask. So we all scrambled like
ants in a desperate search for anything we could make a mask out of.”
that point, there were 31 confirmed infections at other state prisons,
including a cluster of 18 cases at a men’s prison just 5 miles away in
Chino, the California Institution for Men. (Since then, the outbreak at
Chino has ballooned, with about 700 confirmed infections and 12 deaths.)
Multiple prisoners at the California Institution for Women told The
Chronicle that it was common practice for staff to go back and forth
between the women’s and men’s prisons, potentially spreading infection
from one institution to the other. (Simas denied that any staff were
moving between the two prisons.)
the start of the pandemic, prisoner advocates have appealed to Gov.
Gavin Newsom and federal courts to order the release of tens of
thousands of prisoners. They have pointed out that the California prison
system is overcrowded, operating at 124% of its design capacity, making
it difficult if not impossible for prisoners to socially distance.
experts who do not work for the prison system have urged the state to
prevent inevitable sickness and death by releasing large numbers of
prisoners who pose a low risk of reoffending. Newsom and California
Attorney General Xavier Becerra have resisted these demands, arguing in
court that broad releases are unnecessary and would harm public safety.
Instead, the state has taken smaller steps, speeding up the release of
some prisoners already scheduled to get out within 60 days and shifting
others around inside prisons to create more space.
advocacy groups say that the state’s opposition to sweeping releases
has deprived it of the most effective tool for managing the pandemic.
“It’s just an incredibly dangerous situation that they are creating and that they are responsible for,” said Lizzie Buchen, criminal justice director for the ACLU of Northern California. “They’re doing everything that they can think of to avoid releasing people. And it is absolutely futile.”
The outbreak at the California Institution for Women shows the limitations of the state’s incremental approach.
the first woman tested positive for the coronavirus, and a second woman
on April 15, the virus came for Theriaultodom. She says she has the
autoimmune disease lupus and takes medicine to suppress her immune
system, making her more vulnerable.
woke up one morning “in pain from my head to my feet,” started to cough
and soon tested positive. As testing at the prison increased, dozens
more women were confirmed to be infected.
staff began scrambling to contain the outbreak. They handed out
bandanas and masks to prisoners. Those with symptoms were treated in the
prison’s medical treatment center or isolated in cells, while others
who may have been exposed were placed under a 14-day quarantine.
in a decision that heightened tensions, staff also ordered healthy
prisoners to disinfect contaminated areas of the facility, including
rooms in the medical center where infected patients were isolated.
women at the prison work for the California Prison Industry Authority,
or CALPIA, earning between 40 cents and $1 per hour to clean medical
areas as part of a team called Healthcare Facilities Maintenance. On
April 16, according to an email from a nursing supervisor at the prison
that was obtained by The Chronicle, prisoners on the maintenance team
were required to clean the isolation rooms of COVID-19 patients every
day while wearing a mask and “while patient remains on the bed.”
women protested; they say they were being asked to reuse masks multiple
times and feared exposing themselves to the virus.
am unable to sleep with the thought of that,” one member of the
cleaning crew emailed The Chronicle in mid-April. She did not want to be
named for fear of retribution, and the newspaper agreed under the terms
of our sourcing policy. “This virus is something new and we need to be
safe at the end of the day and I do not feel safe. My face mask didn’t
even seem to have a proper fit to my face.”
The prisoner said she was told that if she refused to clean the rooms, she would be disciplined by a CALPIA supervisor.
said no women were forced to perform that duty — they could choose not
to report for work — but confirmed that prisoners were expected to clean
the rooms of COVID-19 patients and faced disciplinary action if they
individuals apply to work and if they don’t show for work, just as you
or I in a real-working environment, they will receive verbal then
written warnings and later could be unassigned,” she said in a
The California Institution for Women in Corona (Riverside County) has an inmate population of 1,500.Photo: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation 2004
Harris had a job with the prison industry, too, earning no more than 13
cents an hour as a porter. She says she was ordered to scour common
areas in her unit. She wore a mask and rubber gloves, but from time to
time she would slide the mask down to take a breath when she got
mother of three from Monterey, Harris is serving a sentence of 17 years
to life for second-degree murder. She has long maintained her innocence
and has spent almost 25 years in prison. Colby Lenz, an advocate with
the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, says she has known Harris
for about 15 years and finds her to be a reliable source of information
who rarely complains about prison conditions or guards.
May, with coronavirus cases rising at the prison, officials started to
move large groups of infected women to empty areas of the facility in an
attempt to slow the spread. The state Corrections Department says they
placed only asymptomatic women in these units; women say that some
prisoners with COVID-19 symptoms were sent there.
long after Theriaultodom fell sick, Harris developed a dry cough that
kept her up at night and she tested positive for the virus. She said she
was told to gather a few personal possessions and was transferred to a
different part of the prison, where the cells had no windows, the
ventilation was poor and the surfaces were covered with cobwebs.
May 16, both women were moved again, to a 220-person housing unit in
the former firefighting camp. Their cells were on opposite sides of a
hall. Harris began keeping her journal, typing it on a tablet computer.
“I have been documenting everything,” the first entry begins. “I call it the Corona virus chronicles.”
for people who were used to being incarcerated, the isolation area was
nearly unbearable. Typically, women at the prison are free to come and
go from their cells from morning until night, except for 45 minutes in
the afternoon. Now they were confined to their cells, two women to a
cell, for more than 23 hours a day, Harris said.
wrote that the unit felt like a place of punishment. The earliest
entries in her journal describe a litany of slights and deprivations,
some seemingly small, others more troubling.
she first got to her cell in the fire camp, there was no mattress and
no toilet paper, she said. After more than 12 hours, a mattress and a
roll of toilet paper were finally brought to her, she wrote, by a guard
who kicked the mattress into her cell with his boot, laughing. She used
body wash and most of the toilet paper roll to wipe off the boot print.
to Simas, the cells were cleaned and mattresses provided before the
women arrived. She said that infected prisoners in isolation are allowed
to spend time outside their cells, in the yard and dayroom, and to
shower “at least every other day.”
who wanted to clean their cells didn’t have the supplies, multiple
prisoners said. When prisoners asked guards for supplies or medical
attention, they say, they were often ignored. One guard told Harris to
“602 the shit” — 602 is the paperwork code for a prisoner grievance —
but when she asked for a form 602, she was repeatedly denied, she wrote,
and some guards hid their name tags, making it even harder for the
prisoners to complain about guard misconduct.
honestly think that they are so overwhelmed,” Harris wrote. “I’m
watching the staff break down.” Simas said that 602 forms are widely
available to prisoners and that processing of the forms “has continued
without interruption” during the outbreak.
of the toughest days was May 19. Harris and Theriaultodom say a
prisoner in a nearby cell had been refusing food and medicine for days,
often a sign of serious mental distress.
that morning, Harris looked across the hall into the prisoner’s cell
and saw “large flames” leaping up, she wrote. The prisoner had set fire
to a mattress. “I was in shock for about two seconds. … And she was so
calm just looking at me. Finally I snapped out of it and I started
screaming, ‘Her room is on fire.’… I thought she was going to die and I
was going to watch her burn.”
a cell on the other end of the hall, Theriaultodom heard the shouting,
saw smoke and panicked when no staffers came. She screamed, “Please
don’t let us die here,” she later recalled, and “began to throw my body
against the door desperate for a way out. To my relief I heard keys.
They started opening our doors … there was so much smoke I could not see
in front of me.”
spokeswoman Simas confirmed that there was “a small cell fire” at the
prison on May 19, extinguished by staff and a prison fire crew around
11:40 a.m. No injuries were reported, she said, and the women in the
unit were briefly evacuated and checked by medical staff.
days after the fire, according to Harris and Theriaultodom, another
prisoner in the unit tried to commit suicide. Simas said she could not
confirm or comment on allegations of suicide attempts due to medical
also started to worry about Theriaultodom. Although Harris couldn’t see
her friend, she could hear her voice. One day, Harris wrote,
Theriaultodom began “talking crazy,” as if she might harm herself.
said she only saw the mental health staff in the unit when they came by
to slide sheets of puzzles, coloring paper and yoga exercises under the
prisoners’ doors. Simas said that “robust mental health services” are
available to all inmates at the prison and that care providers regularly
visit the cells.
the last week of May, conditions in the unit started generally to
improve. Word of the women’s plight was getting out to advocacy groups,
and a protest on May 23 outside the prison attracted a caravan of 80 to
100 cars. Harris’ journal noted some small acts of kindness by prison
employees. Staff brought the women cups of ice, sometimes twice a day.
Shower time was increased. One guard allowed the women to spray bleach
on their toilets and sinks.
that point, too, many of the women thought they could see an end to
their ordeal. Staff were retesting many of the prisoners; if women
tested negative, they could return to their old cells.
awaiting her test results, Harris watched the news on a small TV in her
cell. On May 30 and 31, she learned about the police killing of George
Floyd, the protests, the teargassing of peaceful crowds. It seemed like
the country on the outside was just as broken as it was inside. She
wrote, “The world has gone mad,” then felt a pang of guilt for having
dwelled on her own problems.
June 1, Theriaultodom tested negative and was released from lockdown.
Another 17 women who tested negative also were soon returned to their
Harris was not so lucky. Her test came back positive. A nurse told her she would need to remain in isolation another week.
“I’m so broken right now,” she wrote.
hall was empty now except for Harris and about four other prisoners.
Finally, after weeks of screaming and banging, all was quiet.
will be OK,” Harris wrote, trying to convince herself. “I’m really
trying to be strong. I keep talking to myself. I keep encouraging
June 4, according to the Corrections Department’s public COVID-19
tracker, the number of “active” virus cases at the prison dipped from a
peak of 157 down to 107, meaning that 40 women had tested negative.
Simas said this was proof that the isolation of the prisoners was
“successful at mitigating the spread of COVID-19.” At the same time,
though, the virus was leaping into new facilities, threatening prisoners
and staff at two prisons that had so far avoided outbreaks — San
Quentin and the California State Prison, Corcoran.
Meanwhile at the women’s prison, Harris was coming up on a month spent in isolation.
“This is pure torture on so many levels,” she wrote on June 4. “I got this though.”
days later, on June 9, a female prisoner with COVID-19 died at an
outside hospital, according to the Corrections Department — the prison’s
first virus-linked death.
next day, still in lockdown and reading Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” to pass
the time, Harris heard that one of her friends had died.
“I am beyond devastated,” she wrote. “She was so young. Our dream was to make it out of here alive. She didn’t.”
Please join us this weekend in the fight to free incarcerated mothers. The #BringThemHome Call to Action is a collective effort from families of those locked in cages and California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), to call on Governor Newsom to grant clemencies and IMMEDIATELY release Patricia Wright, Maria Adredondo, and Lucia Bravo — elders who are at extremely high risk of death and fighting for their lives. This action is in solidarity with our sisters at National Bail Out to #freeblackmamas.
While we are calling for action for the release of these women, our fight goes beyond the elderly and includes everyone imprisoned in a cage. We won’t stop until we #FreeThemAll.
For now we ask that you utilize our media toolkit below to sign the petitions, share them with as many people as possible and include the hashtags #BringThemHome and #FreeOurElders.
California Coalition for Women Prisoners
#Bringthemhome #Free Our Elders #CareNotCages Media Toolkit:
This toolkit provides action items to participate in the campaign. See below for sample tweets and messaging for facebook and instagram.
Instructions: Share the petition site using the hashtag #BringThemHome this weekend and beyond. Organizations please post at least once a day on all of your platforms.
This Mother’s Day, don’t forget about incarcerated moms & grandmas. Help us gain freedom for Grandmama Patricia, Mama Lucia, and Mama Maria by signing 3 petitions for our extremely medically-vulnerable members. Showing public support can mean the difference between life and death for these women. Sign, share, and repost. @California Coalition for Women Prisoners.
#BringThemHome #FreeOurElders #ClemencyNow
Sample Text: This Mother’s Day, don’t forget about the moms inside. Help us get closer to celebrating the freedom of Grandmama Patricia, Mama Lucia, and Mama Maria by signing three petitions for our extremely medically-vulnerable members. Getting enough signatures gives us a chance to get our message to the Governor’s desk. Sign, share, and repost! Instagram: @c_c_w_p Shareable link to Petitions: https://carenotcages.com/
Governor Newsom granted 21 commutations and five pardons on Friday, March 27, 2020. CCWP welcomes Governor Newsom’s exercise of executive clemency for all of these people and we commend him for examining the public health impact of each commutation grant. At the same time we urge him to accelerate clemency at a time when large sectors of the public, including public health officials, are urging immediate action to protect vulnerable people in prisons, especially older and sick people, through commutations and other forms of expedited release.
We particularly celebrate the commutations of three women who had LWOP (Life Without Parole) sentences – Rosemary Dyer, Shyrl Lamar, and Joann Parks- as well as Suzanne Johnson who had a life sentence. All of these women were elders, some were survivors of domestic violence, all of them had already served many years in prison. We also welcome the commutations of the six men with LWOP sentences and the eleven men with life sentences.
The momentum for clemency has been fueled by a growing movement across the country to end life without parole and all forms of extreme sentencing. The same day that Governor Newsom granted these 21 commutations, thousands of people across the country participated in a #ClemencyCoast2Coast twitterstorm to urge Governor Newsom and New York Governor Cuomo to #LetThemGo!
The DROP LWOP Spring Rally on March 9, 2020 brought together an amazing group of people to demand an end to Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentencing. People who had been formerly incarcerated with LWOP sentences, loved ones of those still suffering death by incarceration, and many other advocates and friends gathered on the steps of the Capitol to speak their truths about the reality of living the death penalty in slow motion. Collectively we demonstrated that we will never stand down on our demand to commute all 5,200+ people with LWOP sentences and eliminate this cruel, arbitrary and racist sentence.
One of the most incredible aspects of the day were the many people present who had been commuted from LWOP sentences and were now free and advocating passionately for those they left behind inside prison. They, together with loved ones and advocates, made visits to legislators throughout the day. They presented their lived experience with LWOP to educate lawmakers about why it is another form of death by incarceration. The ask was for lawmakers to support more commutations by the Governor and legislative changes to the California penal code.
Thanks to Silicon Valley De-Bug for putting together this video .