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Pressure Rises For Newsom To Release More People From San Quentin, Other Prisons
Slobodyany Insurance Agency
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, by Jason Fagone and Megan Cassidy
As the coronavirus rages through California’s crowded state prisons, threatening those inside and straining community hospitals, pressure is building on Gov. Gavin Newsom to avert a wider public-health crisis by drastically cutting prison populations — including at San Quentin in Marin County, now home to one of the country’s biggest COVID-19 outbreaks.
Since last week, two federal judges who monitor California’s prison complex, Kimberly J. Mueller of Sacramento and Jon S. Tigar of Oakland, have signaled that they are losing patience with the state’s handling of the pandemic. Both judges said in recent court filings that they may reconvene a special three-judge panel that has the power to order releases of incarcerated people.
The moves came as the San Quentin outbreak grew more deadly, with four incarcerated people dying of likely COVID-19 complications over the July 4 holiday weekend. In total, there had been more than 1,500 confirmed infections and at least six deaths at San Quentin as of Monday afternoon.
California Correctional Health Care Services, the federal organization that monitors prison medical care in the state, announced a leadership shake-up on Monday, after CCHCS admitted to transferring infected men to the prison — a mistake first reported by The Chronicle.
During a hearing Thursday, Tigar said that releases of medically vulnerable prison residents “need to happen immediately.” Many people in state custody pose little danger to the public, he argued, especially the old and infirm, and keeping them locked up during a pandemic is a greater risk to public health than letting them go.
“I say to the state: Please,” Tigar said. “Release enough inmates. Particularly medically vulnerable inmates. To give our prison health workers a chance to protect inmates, staff, and our communities.” The hearing was first reported by Courthouse News Service.
Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a UCSF infectious disease expert and physician, also called on Newsom to quickly release large numbers of incarcerated people, particularly at San Quentin. Chin-Hong said the outbreak at San Quentin is now so dangerous that the state should consider evacuating the facility.
From a medical perspective, he said, keeping vulnerable people inside the prison is “like keeping someone in a burning house without evacuating them and putting out the fire.”
The goal of a large release isn’t just to save incarcerated people and prison employees, Chin-Hong added. It’s also to conserve limited medical resources for everyone in the Bay Area. He said the outbreak is starting to affect UCSF, even though the university is not near the epicenter.
As of Friday, according to a UCSF spokesperson, five of the 21 COVID-19 patients being cared for in the university’s hospital system were from San Quentin. While other hospitals are treating more San Quentin patients, even that small number at UCSF is worrisome, Chin-Hong said, because every hospital has limited resources for dealing with the disease — including intensive-care beds and investigational therapies like remdesivir.
“We have a moral obligation to treat everyone the same,” Chin-Hong said. “If you have a lot more people in the community filling up your ICU beds, that means the next few people are going to be at risk for getting suboptimal care.”
For the past three months, Newsom and the state corrections department have resisted large-scale releases, arguing that more incremental actions could “decompress” the system and get the outbreaks under control. In April, the state released 3,500 people in custody who were within two months of getting out and were not incarcerated for violent crimes, and a release of similar scope began on Wednesday.
But justice-reform groups say this won’t be nearly enough to stop the outbreaks. They argue that many incarcerated for violent crimes happen to be the safest to release, because they have served decades in prison already, for crimes committed in their youth, and now they are too old and too sick to be a danger.
Judge Tigar made the same point during Thursday’s hearing.
Tigar has said before that he lacks the authority to unilaterally order population reductions in California prisons, thanks to a Clinton-era law called the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which limits the power of federal judges to cap prison population. But Newsom and the state corrections department can order releases. And so can a three-judge panel that includes Tigar, Mueller and Kim McLane Wardlaw of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Early last week, Tigar toured two state prisons for men in Vacaville: Solano and the California Medical Facility. During the Thursday hearing, he called the experience “gravely concerning,” saying that “people at CMF are living on top of each other” and that he was struck by the age and frailty of many of the incarcerated men. He described an 89-year-old man with hypertension and lung disease who has received only one disciplinary write-up during 37 years of incarceration, for smoking a cigarette.
“These men all have a family waiting for them,” Tigar said. “So do many other inmates. … And I know that a large number of such inmates can be safely released back into their communities.”
Tigar also urged Newsom to tour the prisons, saying that if he did, the governor would “come to the same conclusion I have” about the need for older and medically vulnerable people to be released.
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