The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerable parts of our community that we have intentionally hidden away: our thirty-five prisons scattered widely across the state that currently house over 118,000 people.

Governor Newsom has responded to the danger of COVID-19 spread within our overcrowded correctional facilities by speeding up the release of 3,500 “nonviolent” people. These individuals were already scheduled to return home within the next thirty to sixty days, but were released early. 

These releases and a temporary halt to transfers into the system from county jails have reduced the prison population by 6,700. In many correctional systems, this number would represent a major reduction, but California’s massive and overcrowded prisons are still at 126% of capacity. 

A group that has not been considered for early release are people serving life sentences, many of whom were convicted as adolescents and young adults and have spent decades inside.

The standard route home for them is arduous. After serving many years of  incarceration, they are given the opportunity to go before a parole board. During a hearing that can last four or five hours  they must show the board they have insight into the factors that led to their crime, are remorseful, are no longer a threat to public safety, and have a concrete plan for housing and employment upon their release. They must accomplish this with no access to computers, and internet, and limited access to rehabilitative programs and other support. 

And even after a person is found suitable, there are still more hurdles. The Parole Board reviews the finding and then the Governor has an additional thirty days to affirm, reverse or ask for a full board hearing. While California law allows the Bureau of Parole Hearings one hundred and twenty days to conduct its review, the law requires only a sixty day period from hearing to release. 

As people wait months to be released, the coronavirus infection is finding its way into even the most remote institutions.  As of April 22nd there are ninety-seven staff and one hundred and forty-nine incarcerated people at twenty-five prisons who have tested positive for COVID-19. 

The risk of infection and death increase daily as people who have spent decades inside and proven their rehabilitation are waiting months to go home. This delay will cost lives. Last week a person in Michigan sentenced to life as a youth who had spent over 40 years incarcerated and was only months away from release died of COVID-19. 

People who served life sentences and were found suitable for parole have parole plans in place and many have strong family ties. This group has aged out of crime, has already been vetted, and has an extremely low recidivism rate.

There are hundreds of people who were found suitable and have met the minimum review and waiting periods who could be released today. As CDCR resumes parole hearings at all prisons through remote means, there will be more and more people who have been vetted and approved for release but are waiting many months in an unsafe environment instead of being home with their families and communities. For them and all of us, public health is public safety. 

If we do not act, and incarcerated people die from COVID-19, then we will be the ones creating harm. On March 24th, the first incarcerated person with COVID19 in a California State Prison was identified. Four weeks later on April 21st, after weekly doubling of cases, there were 131. A “justice system” that does not protect people who cannot protect themselves has become a perpetrator of harm.

Governor Newsom and CDCR should expedite their release. They have served their time and deserve the opportunity to be #saferathome. 

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