The Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, is facing pressure to release elderly and vulnerable incarcerated women amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of May 2020, 3,200 incarcerated people have tested positive for coronavirus, and 16 incarcerated people have died. LA County recently reported the first death of a pregnant woman related to the virus. The county has also confirmed at least 228 COVID-19 cases amongst pregnant women incarcerated in its jails.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the United States could experience up to 100,000 more deaths due to mass incarceration – citing issues with overcrowding and sanitation. The director of the ACLU’s justice division, Udi Ofer, states: “When it comes to Covid-19 deaths, mass incarceration is our Achilles’ heel… the two things the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommends for Americans to fight the virus – social distancing and personal hygiene – are both impossible in jails.”
The Governor now faces pleas to include elderly and vulnerable women convicted of serious and violent offenses amongst those released. These women are at a high risk of death if they contract coronavirus due to age and underlying health concerns—many of which they contracted after becoming incarcerated. Conditions at these facilities are only causing cases to escalate.
Fiona Ma, state treasurer of California, is one of the people calling for their release. On May 1 she gave Governor Newsom a list of 25 women with active commutation requests who are elderly and vulnerable. He has yet to grant any of them. “I’m very concerned for all of them… some of these older women have been in for 45 years. Certainly these women are not violent” states Ma.
The California carceral system is one of the largest in the world. The total number of people incarcerated is about 190,000, with 115,000 people in prisons and 73,548 people in jails. The state incarcerates more people than the entire country of England, which has a total prison population of 80,002.
As of June 2018, of the 35 prisons run by the state, only 2 operated below 100% capacity, with 20 operating between 100%-137.5%, 12 operating between 137.6%-175.0%, and one operating between 175.1%-200.0%.
Sources: The Guardian 06/03, Los Angeles Times 06/03, BBC 06/03, Public Policy Institute of California 06/03