As health professionals, students, and community advocates, we are devastated by the California Department of Corrections’ (CDCR) negligence to protect incarcerated people and demand CDCR follow the advice of public health and medical experts to urgently decarcerate their facilities while ensuring equitable access to the vaccine.
California prisons are home to the largest COVID-19 outbreaks out of all state prisons, jails, and ICE detention centers nationwide. Over 50% of people in California prisons have had COVID-19, and as of 2/3/21, 197 have died as a result of CDCR’s medical negligence. The California Department of Corrections (CDCR) has failed to implement basic public health measures, including social distancing, provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), staff compliance with face covering and social distancing requirements, and adequate testing protocols to keep incarcerated people safe during this pandemic. With vaccine distribution beginning inside California state prisons, we must prioritize the health and autonomy of the nearly 100,000 people incarcerated in California. We believe incarcerated people should be provided dignified healthcare and have equitable access to prevention and treatment measures, including vaccines for COVID-19. We caution state policymakers and prison officials from treating the vaccine as a simple solution to, what is in fact, a deeply rooted and complex public health crisis. For one, we know that vaccines may be less effective against new strains of the coronavirus. Furthermore, vaccines do not stop the threat of the next pandemic and vaccines will not end the public health crises plaguing California’s state prisons. Every year there are outbreaks in carceral facilities, such as the flu, tuberculosis, valley fever, and legionella and CDCR and California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) continuously fail to ensure equitable and adequate healthcare. Like many infectious diseases, COVID-19 exacerbated the pre-existing public health harms embedded in the prison system, including overcrowding, inadequate healthcare, and unsafe practices such as involuntary transfers that have made incarcerated people more susceptible to severe illness and death during and beyond this pandemic. For months, authoritative health bodies including the American Public Health Association and National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have called for decarceration alongside other health coalitions and policy experts, but CDCR has failed to implement this lifesaving measure. Given the horrifying, deadly lessons we have learned from COVID-19, it is even more clear that incarceration is a threat to public health, whether or not you’re incarcerated. We continue to call upon CDCR to reduce the incarcerated population to at least below 50 percent capacity to slow the spread of the virus, prevent further COVID-19 deaths, and reduce the negative health impacts of incarceration. The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified, but not created, the intrinsic threat that incarceration poses to public health and safety. This pandemic has revealed what people directly impacted by incarceration have long named – it is impossible to keep people safe and healthy behind bars. Policymakers must treat the COVID-19 pandemic as a wake-up call to the deep-rooted violence of structural racism and mass incarceration, and urgently enact policies that will reduce California’s incarcerated population by granting large-scale releases. Decarceration is an urgently necessary step towards public health and racial justice.
Moving towards health equity in California requires the release of people in prisons, jails, and detention facilities. Our recommendations below are a critical first step:
- Governor Newsom and CDCR must decarcerate all facilities immediately to below 50% capacity by granting emergency releases without exclusions based on conviction or sentence.
- CDCR must permanently stop all involuntary transfers of people between facilities, including the transfer of formerly incarcerated people from prisons to ICE detention centers.
- All local public health officers must use their powers under the California Public Health and Medical Emergency to “abate any public health hazard” and order facilities in their jurisdiction to urgently decarcerate.
- California Department of Public Health’s vaccine distribution plan must be publicly accessible and prioritize incarcerated people for vaccination while safeguarding people’s autonomy by not using punitive practices to force incarcerated people to take the vaccine against their will.
- CDCR must require that any staff who interact with incarcerated people and/or enter prison show proof of vaccination.