[Pnews] 'Severe inhumanity': California prisons overwhelmed by Covid outbreaks and approaching fires

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Fri Aug 21 16:12:53 EDT 2020



Sam Levin - August 21, 2020 

California's raging wildfires [1] have created a crisis at multiple
state prisons, where there are reports of heavy smoke and ash making it
hard to breathe, unanswered pleas for evacuation, and concerns that the
fire response could lead to further Covid-19 spread. 

A massive fire in the Vacaville area, north of San Francisco, has
rapidly spread within miles of two state prisons this week, including
one that imprisons terminally ill people in hospice care and the elderly
and medically vulnerable. 

Despite mass evacuation orders in surrounding areas authorities have
resisted calls to evacuate the two adjacent prisons - California Medical
Facility (CMF) and Solano state prison. In Los Angeles, a separate fire
has grown near the Lancaster state prison, which has also suffered a
significant Covid outbreak. 

"They are breathing in fire and smoke, and they have nowhere to run,"
said Sophia Murillo, 39, whose brother is incarcerated at CMF in
Vacaville. "Everyone has evacuated but they were left there in prison.
Are they going to wait until the last minute to get them out?" 

To increase social distancing and limit the spread of Covid, CMF had
moved 80 people to sleep in outdoor tents instead of indoor cells, but
with the fire approaching and air pollution rising, the prison moved
them back indoors. Murillo said she now fears a major Covid outbreak
inside the prison, and noted that mass evacuations could also spread the
virus if people are packed in buses together. 

"I'm furious at the incompetence and severe inhumanity of this," said
Kate Chatfield, policy director with the Justice Collaborative, a group
that fights mass incarceration. "Covid is allowed to rage through the
prison system and kill people, and then they have tent hospitals set up
… and now with wildfires, they take down the tents and put these people
back in the Covid-infected building?" 

Aaron Francis, a spokesman for the California department of corrections
and rehabilitation (CDCR), told the Guardian late Thursday that
officials were monitoring the Vacaville fires but that the two prisons
were "not in immediate danger" and had no current orders to evacuate.
The prisons were initially located within the direct evacuation zone [2]
on Wednesday, but were later removed. The Solano county sheriff's
office, which issues evacuation orders, did not respond to an inquiry. 

California depends on incarcerated laborers [3] to fight wildfires and
Covid lockdowns inside prisons forced a dozen of the firefighting crews
to shut down earlier this summer, adding to the chaos. More than 1,300
incarcerated firefighters were currently responding to the blazes,
Francis said.

Inmates in California in 2016. Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP 


In June, CDCR did trainings and prescribed burns around the Vacaville
prisons to prepare for fire season, Francis said, adding that officials
had provided N95 masks to prisoners and staff. 

Families and advocates, however, said they had little confidence in CDCR
to handle the fires, especially in the wake of major Covid missteps [4].
During the pandemic, the virus spread across the system as CDCR moved
prisoners between facilities, and more than 9,700 people were infected,
with 55 total killed so far. Meanwhile, incarcerated people have been
cut off from their families since March and have described living in
inhumane and unsafe conditions [5], suffering through indefinite
quarantines and lockdowns. 

The wildfires have only worsened this public health and human rights
catastrophe, family members said, noting that their loved ones were
experiencing exacerbated anxiety and health problems behind bars. 

"It's disaster on top of disaster on top of disaster," said Kirsten
Roehler, whose 78-year-old father, Fred Roehler, is imprisoned in
Lancaster, where more than 140 people have contracted Covid during the
pandemic. Her father, who suffers from lung disease, asthma and heart
problems, is at high risk of death if he contracts Covid, and is now
trying to shield himself from further respiratory problems from the
nearby Lake fire, which ignited a week ago and was only 48% contained on
Thursday: "He tried to shut off the air flow to his cell so he wasn't
inhaling the smoke." 

In one recent letter, Fred said he saw "huge ugly black smoke rising"
outside his window and that he blocked his vent and put on a mask to try
to protect himself. 

Kirsten, who is in the Santa Cruz area where another major fire is
threatening the region and causing horrific pollution, said it was
unclear to her if CDCR even had a proper evacuation plan in place. "The
state is responsible for these people. They have to take care of them,
that is their job." 

Francis, the CDCR spokesman, said the Lancaster prison was "encouraging
inmates to refrain from excessive or strenuous outdoor physical
activity", adding they were "given the opportunity to return to their
housing unit at any time if they feel they are being negatively impacted
by the air quality". Medically vulnerable people are "required to stay
indoors" and "high-risk inmates" are being monitored, he said. 

Gavin Newsom, California's governor, has released thousands of people
early to alleviate overcrowding in prisons (which has also contributed
[6] to the prisoner firefighter shortages.) But public health experts
[7] have argued that the only way to prevent Covid outbreaks is to cut
the population by at least half, releasing 50,000 or more people.
Advocates have also called for the state to release elderly and
medically vulnerable people en masse, and the fires, they said, have
dramatically increased the urgency. 

Baleegh Brown, a 31-year-old who is immunocompromised and incarcerated
at Lancaster, learned in July that he would be released due to Covid,
but more than a month later, he is still waiting, according to his
sister Najmah Brown: "His life is at risk and now we have these fires …
We are having nightmares and anxiety. It's very frightening when you
feel powerless." (CDCR declined to comment on his case.) 

The state has had months to prepare for these overlapping crises and
should have released more people sooner, said Adnan Khan, executive
director of Re:Store Justice, who was previously incarcerated [8] in the
Solano prison. ""It shouldn't come down to Covid or the fires for us to
start releasing people," he said. "These Band-Aids aren't going to work.
What disaster are we waiting for? Mass incarceration is the disaster." 


[2] https://twitter.com/vacavillepolice/status/1296233590347296768?s=11
[8] https://twitter.com/akhan1437/status/1296566265092268032
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