The State Of California: The San Quentin Coronavirus Crisis

Lawmakers and activists alike are calling on Governor Gavin Newsom to take action to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak at San Quentin State Prison.

As of a week ago, there were just more than 1,000 active cases of COVID-19 at San Quentin in Marin County. That number has grown to more than 1,400, and now a total of six inmates have died from the disease. It is by far the biggest outbreak at a California prison.

State Assemblyman Rob Bonta represents Oakland, Alameda, and San Leandro. He joined us on KCBS Radio's "The State Of California."

You held a press conference with other state lawmakers at San Quentin today, what changes are you calling for to slow down this virus?

Thanks for having me, Jeff and Patti, it’s an honor to be with you. We were at San Quentin outside the gates today, calling on the state of California and Governor Newsom to do a number of things that can help address the humanitarian crisis that’s going on within the walls of San Quentin, where people are dying, getting sick unnecessarily. And that is 1) to reduce the population by 50% as public health experts have determined is necessary to keep those in San Quentin healthy and safe, and prevent them from dying and getting sick. Also to end the transfers of incarcerated Californians in between facilities in the California corrections system, and as well as no longer transfer staff in between facilities in the California Department of Corrections.

So those are three of the requests, also requests for Governor Newsom to come to San Quentin and bear witness to the conditions inside – the lack of ability to physically distance, to quarantine, the conditions for ventilation, etc. So we believe the governor is driven by values of compassion and justice, and that he can and will do the right thing to protect human beings who are inside San Quentin, and all those who are impacted, including staff and the surrounding community.

Assemblyman, it would be easy to say this is a San Quentin issue, and yet its impact is far greater than just within the walls of the prison itself. Can you speak to how this is impacting the community?

Absolutely. You know you can’t contain COVID-19. It spreads from person to person when there are outbreaks, as what happened with the spike at San Quentin. It is nearly impossible to contain it. You have staff who move in and out of San Quentin who move into the community in Marin County and other nearby counties. We also know that individuals with COVID-19 at San Quentin are moving into health facilities in the surrounding county. We have had some of the medical infrastructure pushed to capacity in and around San Quentin. So this is not just an issue related to prisoners incarcerated inside the walls of San Quentin, but it touches us all. At this moment there’s no better time for the statement in our network of mutuality, that one’s health relies on everyone’s health, and our actions really impact the health and safety and welfare of others. So it impacts all of us.

Testing has been an issue across the country, and San Quentin is certainly not immune to that. How do you think a lack of testing played into the outbreak there?

Well, the source of the outbreak was a transfer of incarcerated Californians from Chino Men’s facility to San Quentin and they weren’t tested adequately or timely. And that was the whole problem. So lack of testing is at that core of the problem – lack of adequate testing, lack of timely testing, lack of thorough testing. I believe those individuals who were transported from Chino to San Quentin were tested at some point, but some weeks before they were put on a bus and moved to San Quentin. And that is not a best practice at all. What we need to do here should be guided by evidence of data and science and public health guidelines, and that was not followed. And so adequate, timely testing is a huge part of the solution.

I wanted to circle back to where we started. You talked about the possible need to release prisoners. That scares a lot of people. Can you speak to that and what you would say to sway their concerns about that?

I know that fear comes into play a lot in situations like this, rather than facts. I think it’s important to look at the facts and data. Statistical evidence shows that incarcerated individuals over age 55 (and many in San Quentin are), they are not a threat to the community. Many are sick, many are over the age of 55. The data shows that there are as little as 4% recidivism rates, and that recidivism is triggered by things like sleeping in a park, things that are not dangerous, not putting someone’s life or health in danger by any stretch. So it’s important to look at data, it’s important to look at facts, it’s important to look at individual situations.

There are also individuals within that are scheduled to be released into the community within a year, and that is a population I think should be eligible for consideration for early release. We have already looked at early release for those who are within six months of their release. Rehabilitative impact of one year in prison is not tremendous when weighed against the risk to life and health. And looking where people are placed, if they go in a place of the open, waiting arms of their loving family, where they can shelter in place, and be in an environment of love and care and compassion and support, that certainly looks like safety, and can be and is safety. So it’s important to perceive the facts not with fear.