The San Quentin State Prison outbreak is considered one of the largest cluster-related outbreaks in the country. After at-risk inmates from another institution were transferred to San Quentin in early June to avoid their own COVID-19 outbreak, the virus started spreading rapidly within the prison’s tight quarters. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 2,232 out of 3,462 inmates in San Quentin tested positive for COVID-19 and 25 have died.
RELATED: Check out our coverage of the closure of statewide youth prisons in Calif. and other national efforts in the wake of COVID-19.
In order to minimize the number of COVID-19 patients, health experts recommended cutting San Quentin’s population by 50%. But this recommendation has been met with hesitation. Alameda County Chief Public Defender Brendon Woods told YR Media that before the outbreak happened, he submitted a proposal to Governor Gavin Newsom in which he outlined a plan to cut California’s prison population by about 30% to minimize the chances of major outbreaks. But Governor Newsom didn’t adopt his proposal, and Woods said another major prison outbreak is “just a matter of time.”
YR Media’s Lucy Barnum spoke with Woods about the mishandling of the San Quentin COVID-19 outbreak and how it exemplifies systemic issues within our government and healthcare system.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
YR Media: Tell me how you first learned about the San Quentin COVID-19 outbreak?
Brendon Woods: I heard about the potential of it happening from a letter that I received from someone I know from the San Quentin newspaper. He wrote to me describing the conditions in San Quentin, how there had been no positive cases yet, but if there was a positive case it was going to spread like wildfire. And he was extremely concerned about that. The letter he sent me was signed by 289 other people who are incarcerated in San Quentin prison, pretty much asking for help.
After I received that letter, I wrote the governor and the secretary of corrections requesting for more urgent releases of people who are in prison [around the state]. And I attached the 289 signatures that I'd gotten from the men in San Quentin. That was step number one. I sent it with enough time for the government to react.
After that, three weeks passed and the numbers skyrocketed. And I sent the governor another letter on June 24th asking for releases. It outlined three real easy, specific steps he could take right away.
The first step was to immediately release anyone with less than a year left to serve. That would be about 30,000 people [statewide]. These people are going to be released anyway within the next year — in order to deal with this pandemic, release them early. Really, who cares if they have to serve another month or two? Let's let them out now.
Request number two was to grant early release to anyone who was 60 years old or over or anyone with a vulnerable health condition. And then my final request was to develop an early parole or release process for those with three years or less left to serve. They can be evaluated to see if they're ready for release. Those are my three basic asks.
YR: Governor Newsom didn’t adopt those measures and the virus kept spreading. What were your next steps?
BW: We started a petition on June 26, where we began to gather signatures. I was trying to get enough signatures to present to the governor prior to State Senator Nancy Skinner's Public Safety Committee oversight hearing, where she discussed the San Quentin outbreak. In the span of four days, we were able to get 10,000 signatures of people who agree with our three requests of the governor. And before the hearing occurred, we presented the signatures to Senator Skinner and also to the governor.
After receiving the petition, I know that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has, in response to pressure, issued some releases. They came out with a program that was set up to release up to 8,000 people. It's about six percent of the prison population. In the meantime, while these plans for releases are coming out, we've seen the COVID-positive numbers in San Quentin continue to grow.
YR: What motivated you to speak up about what’s happening in San Quentin?
BW: I've been visiting San Quentin a lot lately. I know a lot of men in San Quentin. And contrary to what people think about people who are incarcerated, they're some of the most intelligent, compassionate, kind men that I know. And they have so much to offer and contribute to society and it's a shame they're locked up in prison for the rest of their lives.
Many of the people who are in prisons, if not my direct clients, were clients of public defenders. They came through the system and we represented them. So I do see it as some sort of obligation to be in their corner and to fight for them. Because who else is doing it? And that's why I became a public defender. It was to pay for Black and brown people who were crushed by this system of "justice.”
YR: How do you think mishandling of this outbreak reflects larger problems within our prison system?
BW: I think it probably expands beyond the prison system. It's primarily how the government and maybe politicians see some people. They choose to put resources into protecting some people and communities and not others. So if you want to say this is one version of systemic racism? Yeah, you can say that.
When we look at the way COVID has impacted Black and brown communities, you cannot ignore the racial disparities. And that's all due to systemic racism that is steeped in the history of this nation. And when we get to mass incarceration, that is another example of systemic racism. Black and brown people are incarcerated at a higher rate. So we see how it all ties into each other.