Beeping filled the underpass of Interstate 880 as a caravan of cars made its way onto the San Francisco bound entrance ramp on 7th street in Oakland. The long trail of vehicles blocked all other entrances and exits of the highway, and heavy traffic began to amass in every direction. A man caught at the intersection stuck his arm out of his car window in annoyance. He seemed to be upset that the protest was ruining part of his day. 

The demonstrators in the caravan were also upset about wasted time. Their family members and loved ones have been forced to spend decades—30, 40, sometimes over 50 years—behind the cells of overcrowded state prisons, even during a pandemic that requires social distancing to slow its spread.

Caravan attendees display a sign stating, “Our loved ones matter.” The caravan drove across the Bay Bridge on Jan. 31, 2021, demanding that Gov. Gavin Newsom grant mass releases due to the rise in COVID-19 deaths in California prisons. Photo: Sean Reyes

At least 100 cars made up the caravan, and they were all filled with friends, relatives, children, and spouses of either actively or formerly incarcerated persons. Their demonstration began on the morning of Jan. 31 at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park in Oakland, where after a series of speeches, they started their trek towards San Francisco during peak Sunday traffic. Their cars displayed posters with messages like “Stop the COVID Executions!,” “CARE NOT CAGES,” and “NEWSOM, STOP KILLING OUR LOVED ONES.”  

Organizations including No Justice Under Capitalism (NJUC), Critical Resistance (CR), and Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), came together for the event. The protesters held Gov. Gavin Newsom responsible for COVID related deaths in prisons. They demanded a mass release of incarcerated people, an end to involuntary transfers, and COVID testing for 100 percent of the prison population. California prisons, whose population is nearly 90,000, are facing a dangerous outbreak of the coronavirus. As of Feb. 8, there are 1,922 active COVID cases in the state’s prisons, and there have been at least 199 COVID related deaths.

As of Feb. 8, there are 1,922 active COVID cases in the state’s prisons, and there have been at least 199 COVID related deaths.

This isn’t the first time demonstrators organize against Gov. Newsom’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic in prisons. According to Minister King X, Program Director of California Prison Focus, several organizations informed the governor that incarcerated folk “could be subjected to die, if not, get critically ill” under current conditions. 

Public health officials and federal courts also warned the State last year about an impending outbreak in California prisons. In June 2020, AMEND at UCSF and the UC Berkeley School of Public Health released a memo urging the state to reduce the San Quentin prison population by 50 percent. In October, the First District Court of Appeals in San Francisco decided that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) had violated the 8th Amendment (no cruel and unusual punishment) and that the prison needed to reduce its capacity by 50 percent. 

The Boom Shake music group plays during a rally at Middle Shoreline Harbor Park in Oakland on Jan. 31, 2021, as part of an effort to urge Gov. Newsom to grant mass releases to incarcerated elderly, immunocompromised and trans people during a time when COVID-19 deaths are increasing in California prisons. Photo: Sean Reyes

San Quentin’s prison population has not been reduced to that capacity. Instead of following the court’s order, the CDCR began to enact arbitrary prison transfers that resulted in dozens of deaths, according to The Guardian. The Davis Vanguard also reported that inmates who refused to be subjected to these involuntary transfers were pressured to sign liability waivers, making them responsible for their own deaths. 

This indifference also comes from prison employees, who are the primary vectors of transmissions in prisons since they come in and out. In October of last year, California’s Office of the Inspector General released a report stating that correctional officers frequently and deliberately refused to wear masks. That same report said that guards faced little to no disciplinary action for breaking COVID protocols. Protesters also expressed first-hand accounts of inmates who were intentionally placed with cellmates known to have COVID. 

Such was the case for Jay Burton, a 48-year-old citizen who has been in prison for 32 years after being wrongly convicted at 16. According to Courtney Morris, an organizer with NJUC, prison officials refused to put Burton’s cellmate in isolation after being diagnosed with coronavirus on Nov. 30. Two weeks later, Burton himself tested positive. That’s why demonstrators said there was “blood on Newsom’s hands” and that the 200 COVID related deaths in California prisons are effectively “State executions.” 

The situation is particularly alarming. Nearly a quarter of the California prison population is over 50, and the average age of incarcerated males is almost 40 years old. Many of those elders are sons, fathers, husbands, and brothers that have been jailed for decades, sometimes in solitary confinement. Demonstrators urged the public to see that this many years in prison is inhumane. Minister King says it’s torture, and Nube Brown, Managing Editor of the San Francisco Bayview National Black Newspaper, called it a“civil death.”

People display banners during a rally on Jan. 31, 2021, where dozens came together to urge Gov. Newsom to grant mass releases starting with elderly, immunocompromised, and trans prisoners. Photo: Sean Reyes

It is widely known that the coronavirus rapidly spreads in socially confined spaces, and California, the state with the second-highest prison population in the country, is notorious for overpopulated prisons. In 2017, the Public Policy Institute of California reported that only two out of California’s 35 prisons were below 100 percent building capacity. Thirteen of those prisons were above 137 percent capacity. So why does the State refuse to grant mass releases of incarcerated people despite that government code section 8658 gives the state the power to do so in cases of “an emergency endangering the lives of inmates”? 

Some point to the fact that 91 percent of inmates have been charged with violent or serious crimes. However, experts such as UC Hastings professor Hadar Aviram note that there is no correlation between public safety and the legal system’s distinction between violent and non-violent crimes. Furthermore, a study by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center found that only 0.58 percent of formerly incarcerated people convicted of murderer commit new crimes. And others recall that between 2011 and 2015, when California reduced its prison population by 45,000, there was no uptick in crime. 

For Brown, whether an incarcerated individual has committed a violent crime or not is beside the point. “I challenge people to think from a place of humanity,” she said. “Let’s say that they did commit a ‘crime’ and are to be held accountable for that: if you cannot rehabilitate someone after [decades] of incarceration, that’s an indictment on the system. [The CDCR] is failing to do their job, and that’s what we need to get to think in our understanding.” For Brown, mass releases need to happen not only because they can and should, but because the CDCR is not fulfilling their rehabilitation claim.

A plane flies over the caravan on Jan. 31, 2021, stating, “Newsom, free prisoners 2 stop COVID deaths!” Photo: Sean Reyes

When asked why she thought Gov. Newsom refuses to grant mass releases, Lia, a protestor and organizer from Sacramento, said that “it comes down to race. It comes down to class. It comes down to the fact that this system was not designed to protect us.” She referred to Black Americans, who make up over 25 percent of the California prison population despite only making up 6 percent of California’s general population. “It’s about money,” she said, given that six days before the demonstration, Gov. Newsom lifted the most recent shelter in place orders—a decision that is likely to increase COVID transmission rates across the state, while he refuses to grant mass releases—a decision that would likely decrease COVID transmission rates in prisons.

That’s why according to Minister King, it doesn’t stop at demanding mass releases. Organizations like No Justice Under Capitalism, All of Us or None, California Prison Focus, and Critical Resistance also want to take power from the CDCR by becoming the Community Strategic Release Board that oversees the mass releases. 

California also has the worst prison to education spending ratio in the country. On average, California spends about $64,500 annually on incarcerated individuals, while it only spends an average of about $11,500 on students in its public school system. Annually, California spends over $8.5 billion to keep nearly 90,000 incarcerated individuals behind bars, while last year, it only provided $75 million in relief funds to undocumented immigrants, even though the state has over 2 million undocumented immigrants that contribute to its economy. Furthermore, 44 percent of the California prison population identifies as Hispanic, meaning that the issue of mass incarceration in California affects many racialized peoples.

Rally attendees Priya Sawhney (left) and Cassie King (right) hold signs of urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to grant mass releases as the rate of deaths surge in California, Jan. 31, 2021. Photo: Sean Reyes

Mass incarceration and the COVID crisis within prisons isn’t limited to California. It exists throughout the United States, whose prison population began to skyrocket in the 80s under the Ronald Reagan administration. As of this writing, Gov. Newsom and the CDCR continue to refuse to grant incarcerated people mass releases. Instead, on Feb. 5, the same day that he announced the beginning of Black History Month in California, Gov. Newsom decided to proclaim Feb. 6, 2021, Ronald Reagan Day. The COVID crisis in California prisons remains rampant.  


Daniel Marquez studies Political Economy at UC Berkeley and is a student researcher at the Latinx Research Center (LRC).

Funding for this special report was provided by the Akonadi Foundation, which is supporting the Black and Brown Media Consortium, a collaborative journalism project between El Tecolote and the San Francisco Bay View Newspaper.