California Coalition for Women Prisoners: Protect our sisters’ health and safety, free the elders!

Most women prisoners are mothers. Send them home to their children! Here, Montgomery Jones hugs her son, Levell Jones, whom she hadn’t seen in 17 months, at California Institute for Women, a state prison in Chino, California. – Photo: Lucy Nicholson, Reuters

by Hafsah Al-Amin and Pam Fadem           

The following letter was sent March 23 to the wardens and health directors in California’s two prisons for women and to the ombudsman: Warden Richard Montes, CIW, Richard.Montes@cdcr.ca.gov; CEO of Health Jim Elliot, CIW, James.Elliot@cdcr.ca.gov; Warden Michael Pallares, CCWF, Michael.Pallares@cdcr.ca.gov; CEO of Health Jimmy Webster, PhD, CCWF, James.Webster@cdcr.ca.gov; and Sara Smith, Chief, Office of the Ombudsman, Sara.Smith@cdcr.ca.gov.

We are writing to you with great concern about the health and safety of all of the people incarcerated in these two institutions during the current public health crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

CCWP has been advocating with and for people incarcerated in Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and California Institution for Women (CIW) for 25 years, particularly regarding the provision of health care. We understand that even with the best of intentions, ensuring the health and safety of large numbers of people in a confined space is difficult. However, we are receiving very distressing information from people at both CIW and CCWF regarding current conditions that make us extremely concerned about safety and health for all incarcerated people at both prisons.

CDCR issued a “COVID Preparedness Memo,” updated as of March 18, 2020, that states, “The incarcerated population is being provided extra soap and hospital-grade disinfectant that meets Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance for COVID-19.”

From our understanding, this is NOT true. Contrary to the stated policy above, we have heard from people at CCWF that as of March 2020, the CDCR warehouse discontinued provision of antibacterial soap and paper towels to incarcerated people. Additionally, people are restricted to checking out spray bottles from COs for one hour in the morning to clean rooms. These spray bottles contain citricide, a standardized extract of grapefruit. Citricide is not an EPA or CDC approved disinfectant.

People incarcerated at CIW have reported that, as recently as March 17, they had only Simple Green (and in fact only a diluted version of that product) available in spray bottles in a porter’s closet designated for use only between 6:15 and 8:15 a.m. There is also a spray bottle of a diluted cleaning agent held by custodial staff that is only available through “check-out.”

Simple Green is not a disinfectant. The product manufacturer states that Simple Green is not strong enough to kill germs (https://simplegreen.com/faqs/). The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) do not list Simple Green as an approved cleaner to kill the virus COVID-19.

Bleach is one of the most commonly available disinfecting agents, recommended for use against COVID-19 by both the CDC and EPA. Bleach is available at both CIW and CCWF, but only in a highly diluted form, and again, only in a spray bottle that must be “checked out” from custodial staff. Restricted access to cleaning and disinfecting supplies is NOT an adequate or appropriate response in the midst of a pandemic.

The CDCR memo also states, “We will continue to ensure inmate safety and security, and the continuation of access to medical, dental and mental health services for the incarcerated population.” Yet, we have received multiple disturbing reports about the lack of basic safety and health supplies for people who are working in a health capacity.

For example, incarcerated people working in the health and medical centers have noted that when they have requested sterile gloves to work with patients, they have been told that they may have access to only one pair of sterile gloves to use for an entire work shift. This is totally unsafe and unacceptable during a health crisis. To work with multiple people who are ill and vulnerable without changing gloves is unconscionable.

More than one quarter of people incarcerated by CDCR are accessing some form of mental health care. In this time of increased stress and anxiety, we call on you to be alert and be prepared to provide extra care.

When faced with severe stress and daily uncertainty, individuals with and without a mental health diagnosis experience higher levels of anxiety, fear, panic and stress. These states of distress are exacerbated when compounded by periods of isolation.

Providing round the clock mental health care is essential in reducing depression, self-harm and increased violence. This is especially true for incarcerated people, and we have very recent evidence of the impact of stress with the suicide crises at CIW and CCWF.

CIW has approximately 267 Golden Girls, people who are aged 50 or above. Established research indicates that people age and decline more rapidly in prison and are physiologically 10 to 15 years older than their chronological age.

There is a moral, fiscal and public health imperative to release the incarcerated elder population, including people serving LWOP, who – against the threat of COVID-19 – face de facto death sentences.

So a person who is 65 in prison, in fact has the health risks and degeneration of a person who is 75 to 80 years old. Elder populations in our communities outside of prison are considered a high risk and vulnerable group in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and special provisions for maintaining health and safety are being taken.

Incarcerated elders are at the greatest risk for COVID-19, yet pose the least risk to our communities. There is a moral, fiscal and public health imperative to release the incarcerated elder population, including people serving LWOP, who – against the threat of COVID-19 – face de facto death sentences.

This means that CDCR must be prepared for and immediately take action to protect the health and safety of this elderly population in both CIW and CCWF.

At CCWF, people held at the Reception Center are on “21-day quarantine,” but they are still housed up to eight to a cell. This makes the necessity for “social distancing” impossible and renders “quarantine” ineffective at best, potentially putting everyone in the Reception Center at high risk.

As every public health worker knows, clear communication is the key to the safety and wellbeing of any community during a health crisis. CDCR has been slow in communicating to those incarcerated, and the messaging has been contradictory to the actions taken.

For instance, the CDCR memo states, “No rehabilitative programs, group events or in-person educational classes will take place until further notice. The Office of Correctional Education is working with institution principals, library staff and teachers to provide in-cell assignments where possible in order for students to continue their studies, legal library access and educational credit-earning opportunities.”

As of March 20, we received reports from CCWF that while there is now a controlled, staggered meal schedule, the yard and day room are still running. But people still go to work together, program and watch movies next to each other. The day room’s use is being modified – only two wings permitted at a time – but it doesn’t really work for social distancing.

We are asking for immediate action on your part to ensure the health and safety of everyone at CIW and CCWF, starting with immediate release for all elders and all others who are medically vulnerable and at risk. This must include people serving LWOP sentences as well. Additionally, we ask for:

1.  Immediate and free distribution of cleaning and disinfecting products. A list of disinfecting products approved by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) can be found at https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-disinfectants-use-against-sars-cov-2 and also at https://www.americanchemistry.com/Novel-Coronavirus-Fighting-Products-List.pdf.

2.  Cleaning and disinfecting supplies must be available throughout the day, and not solely for limited time slots, or only available if “checked out” by custodial staff.

3.  Allow outside community members to mail in necessary cleaning and disinfecting supplies through vendors already approved by CDCR.

4.  Continuing access to telephone and JPay communication for all people in prison to maintain relationships with families outside of prison. Distribute cell phones to all incarcerated people to facilitate communication with loved during this health crisis.

5.  Communication: Access to daily, consistent informational updates from CDCR to all people in prison.

Sincerely,

Hafsah Al-Amin, Program Coordinator, CCWP, hafsah@womenprisoners.org

Pam Fadem, MPH, CCWP Coordinating Committee, pfadem@gmail.org

Cc: Ralph Diaz, Executive Director, CDCR, ralph.diaz@cdcr.ca.gov; Dr. Diane Toche, Undersecretary, CDCR Health Care Services, diana.toche@cdcr.ca.gov; Dr. Joseph Bick, Director, Correctional Health Care Services, joseph.bick@cdcr.ca.gov; Sen. Nancy Skinner, Chair, Senate Public Safety Committee, senator.skinner@senate.ca.gov; Assembly Member Sydney Kamlager, Chair, Select Committee on Incarcerated Women, Assemblymember.Kamlager@assembly.ca.gov; and Gov. Gavin Newsom, gavin.newsom@gov.ca.gov

The mission of CCWP is “Caring Collectively for Women Prisoners: We monitor and challenge the abusive conditions inside California women’s prisons. We fight for the release of women and trans prisoners. We support women and trans people in their process of re-entering the community.” Contact the California Coalition for Women Prisoners at 4400 Market St., Oakland, CA  94608, info@womenprisoners.org, 415-255-7036 ext. 4.