March 16, 2020

Dear Governor Newsom,

We are writing to you out of our heartfelt concern over how the new coronavirus may affect people who live and work in California’s prisons and jails, in light of the current state of emergency in California.

Prisons and jails are known incubators and amplifiers of infectious diseases. Once a virus like the one causing COVID-19 enters such a facility, it is almost certain to infect the entire population and employees despite best efforts to contain it. Thus in China, where the virus originated, hundreds of people in prison have reportedly been infected.

The good news is that the death rate for COVID-19 appears to be low among healthy people under the age of 70, with many people asymptomatic. The bad news is that a substantial percent of people known to have contracted the disease require hospitalization and the death rate among the elderly and those with pre-existing health issues is fairly high. Particularly susceptible are people with cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, hepatitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic kidney diseases, and cancer.

Were the population of a prison or jail to become infected at a time when the virus is widespread outside and hospitals are already pressed to their limits, the death rate could be substantial. Many of those incarcerated are elderly and/or infirm and as a group they are likely to be given lower priority when medical services become scarce in the broader community.

We ask that you act quickly to protect those people in our prisons and jails who are at the greatest risk. In particular, we ask you to consider using your emergency powers to immediately order a one-time review of all elderly and/or infirm people incarcerated in California, with an eye toward providing temporary or permanent release to as many of them as possible. Doing so would not only protect them, but also other incarcerated people, officers and staff by decreasing the strain on resources within these facilities once the virus does hit. We hope that particular consideration will be given to the high percentage of elderly women and men currently in prison who have already served decades behind bars.

Other countries with high incarceration rates where COVID-19 has already become widespread have been forced to reckon with the special problems presented by prisons and jails. For example, Iran announced on Tuesday it was releasing 54,000 people, “in an effort to combat the spread of the new coronavirus disease in crowded jails.” Thus, we are asking you to move swiftly. Ordering a one-time review does not mean releasing people just yet, but nor can such a review be accomplished overnight. If you decide the idea has merit, the review would need to begin almost immediately.


Sincerely yours,

The undersigned

--- Sent by email on March 16, 2020 and signed by 940 concerned individuals