Dear Gov. Newsom,
Many thanks for your tireless work on behalf of Californians in their hour of need. I can only imagine the multiple emergencies on your agenda and the many proverbial fires you must put out to “flatten the curve” and give our emergency services a fighting chance against the COVID-19 pandemic.
I appreciated learning about your recent commutations, as well as about the plans you have put in place to release 3,500 prisoners from CDCR custody. It is a good start, but, unfortunately, it will likely be merely a drop in the bucket.
Less than a decade ago, the Supreme Court found healthcare conditions at CDCR so appalling that, every six days, a person behind bars died from a preventable, iatrogenic disease. The Court attributed this massive failure to deliver anything that could be even remotely called “health care” to overcrowding in prisons, and supported the federal three-judge panel recommendation to release approximately 30,000 prisoners. That has somewhat improved the situation, but even with massive efforts toward a turnaround on the part of the federal receiver, we are still seeing woefully deficient healthcare–interminable lines and wait times, people treated in cages in which they have to wait for hours, “group therapy” consisting of a semicircle of cages.
And that’s without a pandemic going on.
Gov. Newsom, our prisons are a Petri dish for contagion and disease. It is impossible to provide minimal health care to this many people with a highly contagious virus on the loose.
The Public Policy Institute of California, relying on CDCR statistics, reports that 23% of California inmates are 50 or older. Aging prisoners may be contributing to California’s prison health care costs—now highest in the nation. The state spent $19,796 per inmate on health care in fiscal year 2015, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. These costs were more than three times the national average and 25% more than in 2010. Moreover, many California prisoners serve extremely long sentences: Approximately 33,000 inmates are serving sentences of life or life without parole. Another 7,000 are “third strikers,” fewer than 100 of whom are released annually after serving about 17 years. Fewer than 1,000 of these inmates are released every year, typically after spending two or more decades behind bars.
Isn’t decades in prison enough? How much retribution or deterrence do we still need for people serving sentences of 30, 40, or 50 years, that we must keep them behind bars for longer in the face of a lethal pandemic?
Robust research about aging in prison confirms that people age much faster behind bars than they do on the outside, and they are much more vulnerable to disease–partly because of confinement conditions and partly due to faulty health care.
The scale of releases we should contemplate is in the tens of thousands, not in the thousands. If you do not act now, within a few short weeks, the CDCR will become a mass grave.
Please, don’t let the current litigation be the only push to do the right thing. You have done the right thing so many times–as Mayor of San Francisco and as our Governor. The prisoners are Californians, too. They can’t vote from prison, but they are your constituents and you must consider their welfare.
Please, act now, before thousands of lives are lost.
Readers, please join this open letter by signing my Change.org petition.