California’s inaction on COVID-19 amounts to a death sentence for prisoners

In early 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that placed a moratorium on the state’s death penalty. “Death...

In early 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that placed a moratorium on the state’s death penalty. “Death sentences are unevenly and unfairly applied to people of color, people with mental disabilities, and people who cannot afford costly legal representation,” Newsom wrote.

“I will not oversee execution of any person while Governor.”

But in the midst of a global pandemic, incarceration has become a cruel and randomly applied death sentence. Those disproportionately incarcerated in California—people of color, people experiencing mental illness, and the poor—are put at greatest risk.

As of July 17, Newsom has already overseen the state execution of thirty-nine people by COVID-19 in California’s prisons. (For comparison, California’s Death Row executed thirteen people between 1978 and 2006.)

The virus shows no sign of slowing its spread through a sprawling system. More than six thousand COVID-19 cases had been confirmed across state prisons, twenty percent of which have occurred in the last two weeks, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Because only limited testing has been made available, the total number of cases among those incarcerated is likely far greater.


The estimated 240,000 people imprisoned in California state prisons, jails, and detention centers were never permitted to practice physical distancing. They have had no option but to remain where they are, crowded into unsanitary cells, breathing and rebreathing shared air, waiting for the inevitable appearance of the virus.

In May, what was at the time the state’s largest prison epidemic tore through the California Institution for Men in Chino, just east of Los Angeles. Sixteen people were killed and over nine hundred cases were confirmed.

The state then exported the virus. On May 30, CDCR transferred nearly two hundred people incarcerated at the California Institute for Men to San Quentin State Prison, in Marin County, and Corcoran State Prison, in Kings County, south of Fresno.

Now, the pandemic is devastating the state’s oldest prison. More than eleven hundred people are currently sick in San Quentin. Twelve have died thus far. The case notification rate inside is 125 times the rate across California.

The close collaboration between CDCR and Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement (ICE) fuels the epidemic within the state’s immigration detention centers, too. At the Adelanto Detention Center, privately owned by the infamous GEO group in San Bernardino County, six of the ten COVID-19 cases reported earlier this month were among people who had been transferred there from state and federal prisons with ongoing outbreaks.


Outside prisons, jails, and detention centers, epidemiologists and healthcare workers are struggling to break transmission chains and prevent the continued spread of SARS-CoV-2.

The COVID-19 deaths in California’s penitentiary system, though, are preventable. California incarcerates far more people per capita than most countries in the world. This was not always the case and is a trend that can be reversed. For months, activists inside and outside have continuously called on Governor Newsom to dramatically reduce California prison populations. And state assembly members are finally calling on him to end transfers from state prisons to ICE.

But releases so far have been too little and too late. The state’s prison system—six months into a global pandemic—still operates at 118% of its capacity, conditions ripe for virus spread. On July 10, CDCR announced it would grant early releases to 8,000 people incarcerated in the prisons hardest hit by COVID-19. Yet such releases represent less than 5% of the state’s prison population, far below the reductions recommended by Amend, a group of health advisors for the prison system, and CDCR’s requirements for release would categorically exclude many people.

Such shallow gestures cannot slow a pandemic virus. Governor Newsom and CDCR must begin unprecedented mass releases to protect those who still can be protected and to end this cruel new death penalty.

Brutally late action is better than none at all.


Tax-deductible donations to The National Bail Fund’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund can be made here.

The demands of people currently incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison can be found at

Katharine S. Walter is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University where her research focuses on the epidemiology and evolution of infectious diseases. She is also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, San Francisco.

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