Residents demand Newsom grant mass releases as COVID-19 deaths surge in California prisons

Protesters all over the country began demanding major prisoner releases – mass decarceration – since last April, when this protest was held outside Northern Correctional in Somers, Conn. Not a single governor has complied. Prisoner supporters must “remember in November”! – Photo: Cloe Poisson, CTMirror

Community members plan to rally and car caravan urging prisoner releases, starting with elderly, immunocompromised and trans prisoners

by Courtney Morris, No Justice Under Capitalism; Mohamed Shehk, Critical Resistance; and Barni Qaasim, CURYJ

Oakland – On Sunday, Jan. 31, Californians will hold a car protest across the Bay Area to demand that Gov. Newsom grant mass releases for the state’s prison population. Formerly incarcerated leaders, families and friends with incarcerated loved ones will gather with other activists at 11:00 a.m. at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park in the Port of Oakland to call on Gov. Newsom to urgently address the ongoing crisis of COVID in prisons.

California prisons have the highest numbers of coronavirus cases of all the prisons in the nation, and the state has one of the three highest numbers of deaths in state prisons. While Newsom placed a moratorium on the death penalty in 2019, people in prisons are being executed by COVID-19 because of governmental inaction, with many more lives at risk. 

“Gov. Newsom needs to act quickly, and show the courage to turn around California’s dark history of mass incarceration – or his legacy is going to be that of thousands of state executions by COVID-19.”

Little action has been taken, even as health experts have urged significant steps as the pandemic initially spread. For instance, UCSF infectious disease experts have urgently called for the San Quentin State Prison population to be reduced by at least 50%.

“A prison sentence shouldn’t be a death sentence,” says Sasha Leitmann, NJUC. “Gov. Newsom needs to act quickly and use his legal authority to grant mass releases and prevent avoidable deaths. He must show the courage to turn around California’s dark history of mass incarceration, starting with releasing the most vulnerable of those incarcerated – elderly, immunocompromised and trans individuals – or his legacy is going to be that of thousands of state executions by COVID-19.”

There have been 45,486 coronavirus cases in California state prisons, meaning two in five incarcerated people have tested positive. As of today, 184 people have already died, with December 2020 bringing the steepest increase in deaths. The infection rate is 5 times higher and the death rate is 1.7 times higher inside our prisons than in California overall. Of the lives lost, the average age is 63 and 75 percent are part of the Armstrong and Coleman class action lawsuits, indicating that a majority of those who have died are elderly and have disabilities, which is disproportionate to the overall California prison population. Additionally, 49 of those who died were eligible for parole or had release dates. 

California incarcerates 95,000 people in state prisons, the vast majority of whom do not have access to PPE, hygiene supplies, COVID testing or adequate nutrition.

“Doing time for selling drugs shouldn’t be a death sentence; 184 people have already died from COVID inside California prisons and the death rate is increasing dramatically,” says J. Vasquez, policy coordinator for Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice. “Overcrowding is still a huge problem because the prison population is well over 100 percent of design capacity. It is impossible to socially distance, and incarcerated people are denied adequate access to disinfectant. The only sensible solution to this problem is to immediately decrease the prison population.”

California has one of the largest prison populations in the country with 95,000 people in state prisons, the vast majority of whom do not have access to PPE, hygiene supplies, COVID testing or adequate nutrition. While Newsom released 18,300 people early in the pandemic, the state has failed to reduce its prison population to the minimum level required to socially distance. 

Nine prisons remain at over 120 percent capacity, and coronavirus infections have been documented in all 35 state facilities. The state has reacted by transferring people from a facility experiencing a surge, thereby creating a surge in the next facility and further expanding the crisis of COVID in prisons. The only solution is mass releases and an end to the transfers, including and especially transfers to ICE detention centers. 

“We demand care not cages,” says Nick Direnzi of the Oakland chapter of Critical Resistance. “As community members are struggling to have stable healthcare, housing, income and food during this pandemic, California is continuing to spend $16 billion a year to lock people up in cages. 

“The COVID-19 crisis has exposed how prioritizing imprisonment while undercutting life-affirming resources means that all of us are less safe and less prepared to get through this pandemic. Newsom must take immediate action to release people from prisons to ensure their health and wellbeing.” 

Courtney Morris,, works with No Justice Under Capitalism, a coalition that came together to draw public attention to the potential emergency of COVID in California prisons and has since been fighting for mass releases across California. Mohamed Shehk,, works with Critical Resistance, a national organization based in Oakland that works to challenge the idea that imprisonment, policing and surveillance keep our communities safe. Barni Qaasim,, works with Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, CURYJ (pronounced “courage”), which unlocks the leadership of young people to dream beyond bars.