Dec. 6, 2020; Updated: Dec. 7, 2020
As the coronavirus tore through California prisons this summer, a chorus of activists, health officials, doctors and judges implored Gov. Gavin Newsom to shrink the state’s inmate population and release some of the sickest and frailest prisoners — those most likely to die if they contracted COVID-19.
On July 5, the same day two San Quentin prisoners died of coronavirus, the head of health care in the state’s prison system delivered a list of more than 6,500 medically high-risk inmates to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Newsom then pledged to release 8,000 prisoners by the end of August.
Since then, about 7,500 incarcerated people have been granted early release. But rather than free the most medically vulnerable prisoners, the Newsom administration has instead prioritized the release of inmates nearing completion of their sentences, the majority of whom are ages 25 to 44, data obtained by The Chronicle shows.
Just 59 medically high-risk prisoners with more than a year left on their sentence were granted expedited release, according to Corrections Department figures obtained through a public records request.
Advocates said the numbers suggest that California officials are letting political considerations drive their approach, instead of science and public health. Many of the most vulnerable prisoners have been convicted of violent offenses, and Newsom has suggested that releasing such people may jeopardize public safety. However, research shows that people tend to “age out” of crime, and that older prisoners are less likely than younger ones to reoffend.
Since the start of the pandemic, more than 22,000 incarcerated people have contracted COVID-19, according to the Department of Corrections web tracker. Ninety have died.
“In this moment, with what has been happening in these prisons, if we are not willing to get creative to save lives and save human dignity, it sends the message that we just don’t care to change,” said Danica Rodarmel, state policy director for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.
The Corrections Department did develop a program to analyze whether at-risk prisoners could be released. But of those 6,500 eligible prisoners, the agency did not consider more than 5,200 of them, according to court filings in an ongoing federal lawsuit about the quality of medical care in California prisons. Of the 1,300 high-risk medical cases that officials did review, they released the 59.
Officials did not say why the vast majority of people on the list were either not considered or not approved, but in court filings, the department cited concerns that they might commit future violence. Dana Simas, a spokesperson for the prison system, said that an unspecified number of medically at-risk prisoners with less than a year remaining on their sentences were freed through other channels designed to expedite release amid the pandemic.
The governor’s office did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
The Corrections Department, which manages California’s 35 prisons, touted that its chronically overcrowded system is currently at 109% capacity, down from 123% in July.
“The prison population in California is at its lowest level in more than three decades,” said Simas, adding that the department’s efforts “have allowed institutions to protect the most vulnerable in the incarcerated population and staff by maximizing available space to implement physical distancing, isolation and quarantine efforts.”
The statewide prison population shrank after the Corrections Department temporarily stopped accepting new prisoners from county jails and the limited release programs went into effect. Yet the system still holds more people than it is designed to hold, many individual prisons are overcrowded, and infections have swept through several of them with ferocious speed. About 75% of inmates at San Quentin were infected at the peak of July’s outbreak, straining local hospitals.
In the past two weeks, the prison system has grappled with more than 3,000 new cases. Nine of the 90 inmates who have died of COVID-19 complications were on Death Row.
The state has “implemented unprecedented efforts” to protect medically high-risk inmates by restricting movement within prisons and offering “voluntary moves” from dormitory-style environments to more socially distant cells, Simas said. The department also ramped up testing and health care screenings.
Ahead of this summer’s massive outbreaks, corrections officials in March accelerated the release of inmates with less than two months left on their sentences, Simas said. All told, California has expedited the release of about 11,000 inmates since the beginning of the pandemic.
But some prisoner advocates say it’s not enough.
It amounts to little more than “a push out the door,” said Hadar Aviram, professor of law at UC Hastings in San Francisco. “They are keeping older people behind bars. Sound public health policy says those people should be the first to go.”
Aviram has spent decades studying violence and the criminal justice system. Despite the fear surrounding violent offenders, her research and that of others suggests that these offenders become far less likely to reoffend as they get older.
Just 1% of prisoners sentenced to life, then released on parole between 1995 and 2010, went on to commit new crimes, according to a study by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. In contrast, 48% of parolees with lesser sentences were likely to reoffend.
Rodarmel, who has a relative currently incarcerated at San Quentin, said that public fear and political posturing around people convicted of violent crimes is a major barrier to securing the release of at-risk prisoners. She cited the governor’s messaging at his early July news conference, when he announced his intention to release 8,000 prisoners.
“People are saying, ‘Just release thousands and thousands of people,’ I hope they are being thoughtful and considerate of not only the victims but the prospects of people reoffending,” Newsom said at the time.
The early releases have been geared heavily toward nonviolent offenders. About three-quarters of those released between July and November were in prison for property, drug and other crimes. About one quarter had committed a crime against another person.
To be eligible for early release, inmates had to receive an assessment from prison officials “indicating a low risk for violence,” according to Corrections Department guidelines. High-risk sex offenders, those on Death Row and those serving life without parole were excluded from consideration.
Patricia Ramdhan was among those released this summer who had been convicted of a violent crime: a murder she maintains she didn’t commit.
The 69-year-old grandmother is battling cancer for the third time. In the months before her release from the California Institution for Women, Ramdhan said she spent her time shuffling between the hospital — where she received chemotherapy handcuffed to the bed — and quarantine, where she was isolated in her cell for weeks at a time.
Ramdhan, who served 23 years, often writes letters to her friends who remain inside. She said the conditions under coronavirus are tantamount to abuse.
“There are so many dying women in prison that need to have a right to die at home,” she said. “At least I will die among people I love.”
Chronicle staff writer Jason Fagone contributed to this report.