‘They want us to get COVID; they don’t care who dies’: Prisoners’ families stage Central Valley-wide protest Sunday, Dec. 13

Protesters cite life-threatening COVID-19 and human rights violations in CDCr

by Oakland Abolition and Solidarity

Corcoran, Calif. – People from all over the state who have loved ones in prison are rallying outside several Central Valley prisons in coordinated protest against the California Department of Corrections and rehabilitation (CDCr). Protests will convene on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, at 10 a.m. at the following facilities:

  1. California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and Corcoran State Prison
  2. Kern Valley State Prison
  3. North Kern State Prison
  4. MCCF in Delano
  5. Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga
  6. Avenal State Prison
  7. Wasco State Prison

Families and friends are holding memorials for those whose lives have been lost in prison, confronting the institutions and administration that have allowed abuse and negligence to continue. Part of the action is to also deliver an evacuation plan, written collaboratively by families and advocates. 

“Our loved ones are in a life and death situation and CDCr continues to fail to respond in adequate and urgent measure,” says Christine Herrera, whose husband is currently recovering from COVID-19 inside the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and Prison (SATF) in Corcoran, Calif. “We want our loved ones safe; we want to bring them home.”

Herrera, like hundreds of other Californians, has attended several protests outside prisons over the past year. A wave of over 50 protests outside CDCr prisons have been led by a grassroots group of people with family in prison called We Are Their Voices. Outside response and attempts to pressure CDCr have taken many forms this year.

Call-in actions or phone zaps to wardens and administration for immediate relief of conditions have had temporary and minimal results. Lawsuits and court-ordered releases have resulted in some changes that are unfortunately piecemeal and limited to individual facilities. Participation in legislative hearings has not resulted in systemwide change that is desperately needed.

“I don’t want to die in here,” says Jamie Lien, who is currently incarcerated at SATF and is at a high risk for contracting the virus due to his age and terminal lung cancer. “I’ve heard [CDCr] say they want this virus to run its course. They want us to get it. They don’t care who dies.” This is an attitude that we’ve seen in the words and behavior of guards across the facility.

Beyond the negligence around COVID-19 safety, quality of life is at a dangerous low. Reports from inside paint a grim situation that has gotten more dire with each passing week. People inside describe near-starvation meals with insultingly tiny food portions. For example, two bits of dough and a radish for breakfast, a packet of crackers and cheese for lunch, a single potato for dinner. People also describe being placed in crowded gym dormitories or in cells without heat orelectricity.

Inside the prison walls, there has been ongoing action and protest against prison conditions despite countless institutional barriers. In November, three men in SATF went on a coordinated hunger strike. Their demands included basic access to showers and clean laundry, COVID-19 testing – which was scarce in the first two weeks of the outbreak – food and transparency about suspicious transfers.

“Our loved ones have no choice to shelter-in-place or socially distance and no chance to get care if they get sick.”

Transfers have been a major driver of the spread systemwide and within facilities like SATF. The transfers show that much of the exposure to COVID-19 inside is the result of negligence, if it is not outright deliberate. People across the system are also describing waiting up to a week for test results and saying that safety protocols like masking and distancing are flagrantly ignored by staff.

Families and advocates are enraged by the systemwide inaction, run-around and lip service. Inside the prison, there is a total lack of information and transparency and increasingly limited means of communication, creating a mass state of anxiety that affects both people inside and their family outside. At this moment, CDCr is responsible for 5,502 active COVID-19 cases and 93 deaths from the virus. 

Sixty percent of the people in SATF have had COVID-19, most of them within the last month – and that figure is over one third at several other facilities. There is not a single facility in the entire system that is currently free from active COVID-19 cases.

“Our loved ones have no choice to shelter-in-place or socially distance and no chance to get care if they get sick,” says Angela Cadena, activist and organizer. “It’s up to us to be out here advocating for them because they are being separated, shut down, ignored and retaliated against. We have to be their voices.”

Contact organizers ABOSOL and WATV at wearetheirvoices17@gmail.com. Oakland Abolition and Solidarity (ABOSOL), previously Oakland IWOC, can be reached by mail at P.O. Box 12594, Oakland CA 94604, and by email at eric@oaklandabosol.org.