March 29: Update from the President on COVID-19

By Jody Lewen | March 29, 2020

Dear friends,

I hope everyone is doing OK. I’m writing to share some further updates as we continue to try to figure out how we can best support our students and the larger community inside during this crisis.

As many of you know, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we and other organizations and individuals in California and around the country have been working to bring about the release of the most medically vulnerable incarcerated people and/or others considered “low risk.” The goal is to reduce the risk to them, while also making it easier to control the spread of the virus inside by reducing overall population density.

Around the country, thousands of people have already been released from prisons and jails. While I am deeply heartened and hopeful about these sane, rational developments, I’m indescribably frustrated that it took a pandemic to bring them about. I’m also concerned about the adverse conditions that will confront those individuals being released and those charged with supporting their transition.

Even in the best of times, reentry is a taxing and complex process. Right now, even picking someone up at the gate or meeting with them face-to-face is hardly an option. Today, many transitional houses are either full or closed to intake; service providers are working from home and either scaling back or shuttering their operations. Essential offices like the DMV and Social Security are closed—and without an ID it’s impossible to get a job.

Family members, friends, and organizations that provide housing to new arrivals will not only need space for them to hunker down indefinitely during the shelter-in-place period; they’ll need the capacity to quarantine them for their first 14 days out. New arrivals will also need financial support for the foreseeable future. In many cases, they will have acute medical needs—including, conceivably, health issues related to COVID-19. Those who physically interact with new arrivals to support their reentry will need to have the skills and resources to do so safely, given the risk for all parties of contagion.

Hopefully everyone advocating for mass releases is working just as hard to develop adequate housing for these folks when they arrive home. But even if this can be arranged, what will become of the overwhelming majority of incarcerated people who remain inside the institutions? While even a 20% reduction of the overall prison population would create some much-needed space, it would not produce the medical personnel or material resources sufficient to care for everyone inside, in the event that rates of infection and severity of illness are comparable to what is occurring in the outside population—and they are likely to be much worse.

I am obviously not arguing against evacuating as many people as possible; nor am I suggesting that all of these efforts will be in vain. However, from both a public health and humanitarian perspective, these steps will not mitigate the catastrophic lethality of the system’s very design. Even living in the midst of a pandemic, I personally am safer from illness and death than the average incarcerated person is on an “ordinary” day. None of these steps will change that reality. Especially not right now.

Yet much of the criminal justice-related advocacy work being organized in response to this crisis seems to sidestep the reality that over two million people in the U.S. will experience the devastation of this pandemic from inside prisons and jails. While clearly concerned about the broader issues, most advocates and institutional philanthropists, including those that ordinarily value agility, responsiveness, and innovation, seem unable to engage with the question of what they could do right now to avert a massive loss of human life. Instead, many remain hyper-focused on long-term goals like decarceration, and the gratification of legislative “big wins,” apparently unwilling or unable to respond simultaneously to an impending humanitarian disaster.

Perhaps the situation is too overwhelming to even think about. Prisons are epidemiological tinderboxes. A huge percentage of incarcerated people are elderly and/or have serious existing medical conditions; maintaining physical distance from others in a 100-person dorm, or in a double-bunked cell block, or in a chow hall is impossible; simply keeping one’s hands clean can be a huge challenge. Hand sanitizer is considered contraband in most prisons because of its alcohol content. Prison medical staffing levels, space and equipment are entirely inadequate for an institution-wide disaster—much less a statewide, national, or global one. The vast majority of prisons rely on outside hospitals to provide specialized or acute care, including for respiratory problems. Maybe the only mental response we can muster is the impulse to remove people to safety.

Still, we must imagine the situation when the virus spreads inside, and outside hospitals are already overwhelmed. From Friday to Saturday alone, the number of patients in intensive care in California rose from 200 to 410. What will happen in the coming days and weeks, when more and more incarcerated people become ill, prison staffing levels begin to drop, and both custody and medical staff become increasingly exhausted and frightened, if not ill?

We must ask: what can we do right now to minimize the risk of illness and death to both incarcerated people and to staff? How do we help impede the spread of illness? What do those running the prisons require to keep people safe? How can we prepare incarcerated people for the reality that they and/or others around them may become seriously ill, in many cases with no access to medical care? How can we protect those with severe mental illness or disabilities? How can we help everyone involved cope with justifiable feelings of fear, anger, and frustration, so that despair does not descend and ultimately convert to violence? How can we prevent the catastrophic scenario in which hundreds of people are sick and dying in their cells and dorms, and staff are no longer reporting to work?

I have spent the last few weeks asking these questions of prison staff, administrators, formerly incarcerated people, and other colleagues. Regarding staff, most answers focus on having access to personal protective equipment and other hygiene supplies (gloves, masks, sanitizer, soap, paper towels); ensuring their needs and concerns are heard; and knowing that people around them are aware of what they are going through, and supporting them. Staff also need practical support ensuring that they are not carrying the virus home to their families. To address this concern, and to minimize their driving while exhausted (particularly now that van pools are problematic, and given how far many live from their institutions), we should be booking local hotel rooms for them now. This would be particularly prudent, given that staffing shortages will likely require many to work overtime. They can also use healthy snacks, space to rest or change their clothes before leaving work, and anything else that might allow them to decompress.

To support currently incarcerated people: everyone needs plentiful access to soap, sanitizer, toilet paper, masks, adequate nutritious food, paper and stamps, gloves, as well as regular access to yard and showers. All of these supplies should be distributed for free, rather than sold through canteen—particularly given that lockdowns and “modified programs” mean the cancelation of most jobs, which means people are unable to earn the money they need to purchase such essentials. Many family members who might ordinarily send money are likely also experiencing extreme economic distress as a result of the abrupt elimination of so many jobs on the outside.

Everyone inside also needs accurate, accessible information about the virus itself and how to avoid contagion. In addition, they need medical information about the progression of COVID-19, and advice on how to care for themselves and others in the event that they become ill and are without professional medical support. The institutions must also plan for the possibility that as staffing drops below critical levels, those who are incarcerated may need to maintain basic, life-preserving operations by themselves until help is available. They should prepare now to distribute cell phones.

One piece of good news that I have to share is that at San Quentin, the Warden, the Chief Medical Officer, and the CCPOA Chapter President are exceptionally dedicated and competent people. With adequate resources, I believe they have the capacity to create a model for how to mitigate the impending disaster—before we finally address the horrific dysfunction of the system itself.

As an organization we are now working to help ensure that all necessary supplies and resources are available to both the incarcerated community and staff, and to make sure that everyone knows that they are not forgotten and will not be abandoned. In spite of their radically different positions, in a certain sense the fates of incarcerated people and prison staff are now bound together. The only way to help one group is to help everyone. But all of this needs to happen now; we are out of time.

—Jody Lewen, Executive Director

Please note that the Prison University Project became Mount Tamalpais College in September 2020.