According to media reports, Los Angeles County decided to release inmates in fear of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) as it found its way into local jails. As of April 20, a total of 1,724 inmates were quarantined; 64 were in isolation; 26 tested positive and seven have fully recovered and are back with the inmate population in the Los Angeles County jails. (Daily updates are available at publichealth.lacounty.gov.)
As LA County jails house approximately 17,000 inmates, fear has risen with confirmed cases in four separate state prisons.
Conditions in county jails and federal prisons have raised concerns by many civil rights advocates and inmates, who have said that social distancing is impossible with over 100 people in small spaces and bunk beds three feet apart. Additionally, cleaning supplies are hard to get.
“We’re really thinking about this, as these are our community members and we can’t leave these people behind as California braces for the full scale of this pandemic,” said Robin Steinberg, chief executive of the Bail Project. “Policing has to radically change in response to this crisis that we’re facing and the police should refrain from arresting people on the kinds of offenses that they have all too easily arrested people on over the last few decades. It’s an opportunity for them to only make an arrest when absolutely necessary.”
In the last few weeks, the LA County Sheriff’s Department has decreased its new inmate intake by 6 percent. Also, District Attorney Jackie Lacey announced her office will decrease bail for thousands of non-violent offenders.
Commander Jason Wolak of the Sheriff’s Department’s Custody Division also said that the department will release elderly and pregnant women due to a higher risk of getting infected with COVID-19.
A recent press release stated that Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary to put a temporary halt on the intake, as well as the transfer of inmates and youth into the state’s 35 prisons and four youth correctional facilities. Those inmates and youth will remain in county custody for the next 30 days. This period can be extended if needed.
“The State of California is responding in real-time and fighting hard to deploy every resource to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Newsom said in a statement, “And we are working with our public health experts, corrections system and our local sheriff’s departments to ensure proper protocols and procedures are in place to effectively limit risks in correctional facilities.”
In addition, this order directs the Board of Parole Hearings to develop a process to manage all scheduled parole suitability hearings through video-conferencing, starting no later than April 13, for the next 60 days. This process makes it easier to participate remotely for those typically in attendance. This order was issued to protect public health, as well as provide for the safety and welfare of state inmates, youth, and staff.
But what about the remaining 2.3 million people incarcerated who have life sentences and don’t await bail?
March 25 was #DayOfEmpathy, dedicated to those incarcerated and in isolation.
Supported by Michael Mendoza, the national director of #cut50, as well as Anthony Kapel “Van” Jones, founder of the non-profit organization DreamCorps whose mission is to have lawmakers consider jail reforms, especially during the current crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their vision is to move toward a criminal justice system that values human rights with treatment and compassion, instead of punishment and incarceration.
“With empathy, understanding, and love, we can build the political will needed to rectify the damage caused by the incarceration industry on individuals, families, and our society,” their website reads.
At a video conference March 25, host and #cut50 organizer Louis L. Reed held a panel with author and news commentator Jones; DreamCorps CEO Nisha Anand; civil rights advocate Martin Luther King III; and other guests. The panel’s focus was to discuss jail reforms and dedicate these moments of social distancing and isolation to the ones who have been incarcerated for years.
Every day at 4 p.m. inmates across the nation have to follow a count in federal prison. In solidarity, the panel took a moment of silence at that set time. During the current crisis, many feel some empathy with the incarcerated. The isolation, food insecurity and anxiety is unsettling. Even more so, people in jail and prison have more difficulties in practicing social distancing, or purchasing toilet paper, soap and cleaning products, since there is a high demand with an even higher price, and supplies are limited. The same goes for getting tested for COVID-19, these test kits are not provided for free and inmates have to pay out of pocket.
The #cut50 program is a fight for freedom and human dignity, Van Jones said.
Jail reform advocate and senior fellow with the Dream Corps, Shaka Senghor, who was a guest speaker on the panel, knows first hand what it means to be behind bars and in isolation. At the age of 19, he was convicted for second-degree murder and served 19 years in the Michigan Department of Corrections where he was able to observe prison politics from the inside, and he concluded that; A.) prisons are a business and B.) they don’t provide rehabilitation.
“I’m from the streets of Detroit. I was doing this work a long time ago when I was inside,” Senghor said. “I, myself spent seven and a half years in solitary confinement. The #DayOfEmpathy is an important day to reflect on the men and women inside.
“People finally understand what it means to be isolated, it’s a great opportunity to think about the men and women inside who don’t have social media or food. We have a lot of men and women who end up in jails for different reasons, broken homes, substance abuse. They don’t have access to hand sanitizers, only soap. But if they don’t have money, they can’t buy it.”
Activists say the issue is the unsanitary state of jails and prisons.
“The one thing I think about is, how do we create humanity in a society where humanity is diminished? It certainly is an issue my father and my mother would have addressed,” King said “We have more people incarcerated in this nation than other nations around the world. We can and must do better.”
Event organizers instructed listeners to sign a petition at cut50.org/empathyinaction.
“This is a human rights issue,” Mendoza said. “We need all hands on deck to take action.”