Eddie Conway talks to activists from Michigan and California—two hot spots for COVID-19 cases in prisons. In both states, mistakes by prison officials led to a rise in cases.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Eddie Conway: Welcome to this episode of Rattling the Bars. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore for The Real News Network.
Of course, everybody around the country has been following the COVID-19 cases, the pandemic, and we have been following the cases in the prison system. And just recently, there’s been dramatic changes, not just outside, but inside prisons. And San Quentin in California is a epicenter of the rise of COVID cases, through mistakes made by the State of California. And so is Michigan. It’s also the epicenter in the Midwest of COVID-19 cases through another mistake made by prison officials.
So far, there’s been over 57,000 cases within the prison system across America, and there’s been 650 some deaths already of prisoners. Much of this probably could have been avoided with personal protection, distancing and so on.
But joining me today to kind of explain what happened in California and Michigan is activist, Arthur League, from California. And joining me from Michigan is Amani Sawari. And so Amani Sawari and Arthur League, thank you for joining me.
Amani Sawari: Thank you for having me.
Arthur League: Yes. Thank you for having me.
Eddie Conway: There’s 5,000 cases in California, so let’s start off with California. There is 4,000 cases in Michigan, of course, but let’s start off with California. What happened? Why this outbreak, this increase? And why in San Quentin, which was almost COVID-free? All of a sudden now, there’s thousands of cases. Arthur, can you kind of tell us what happened out there and what’s the ramifications?
Arthur League: In California, or in San Quentin particularly, it was free. There was not a single case of COVID-19 in San Quentin. We actually had a rally there and a press conference outside the gates in May when there was absolutely not one case. And we told the State that it was going to get there and it was going to be devastating because of the layout of San Quentin. I actually had an apartment there for a number of years, so I know it quite well.
And what happened was they had a COVID outbreak in a prison in southern California, the California Institution for Men. They tested these men, and they decided to ship a group of them, over 100, to San Quentin. However, they tested them and nearly a month went by before they transferred them. And by the time they got to San Quentin, there were many of them infected, and they put them in living situations with people who were already there. And it just ran through like the wildfire that it will.
San Quentin is a very old prison. It’s reminiscent of cowboy days, bars, no doors, and they put the positive folks on top, the top tier. So anytime they coughed or sneezed or anything, droplets would just rain down like snow, and it just devastated. And the number, of about two weeks, it went from zero to nearly 1,000 cases.
Eddie Conway: What happened in Michigan? I mean, it always had cases, but Rikers Island was leading. Now, Michigan is number two in the nation. What happened there?
Amani Sawari: Yeah, so you mentioned 600 some deaths of people in prison. Michigan accounts for over 10% of those deaths, and it doesn’t even have as big of a population as states like California and New York’s prison system. So it’s really grossly being mishandled here in Michigan.
What happened here was there were two corrections officers that had tested positive for the coronavirus early in March, and that was at Macomb Correctional Facility and Parnell Correctional Facility. At that time in March, there were no cases from the inmate population. And so not too long before the end of the month, Parnell and Macomb were considered the most infested facilities. And so people were being sent to those facilities and sent out of those facilities. So once they started transferring folks is when it exploded. And so they transferred 60 people from Parnell to Gus Harrison Correctional Facility.
And I actually have a friend at Gus Harrison Correctional Facility that was concerned when he noticed that they were clearing out areas, particularly around the control rooms, for quarantine space. And they were questioning, “Well, why are we creating quarantine space here if there is no one here that has contracted the virus?”
And then we found out they’d moved 60 people from a very highly infested prison, Parnell, to a prison that had no cases. And then before we know it, people started having cases that weren’t even infected before. And so, they were transferring people from facilities where there were a lot of infections over to facilities where there were none. And now, it’s exploded.
So Parnell and Macomb Correctional Facility have over 1,000 cases, and then Gus Harrison Correctional Facility has 1,200 cases. So the entire State of Michigan’s prison population has nearly 4,000 cases right now, and that all started with two corrections officers.
Eddie Conway: Arthur, I understand that the guards are not wearing masks. They’re not using protective gear. There has been some resistance about prisoners complaining that they might have symptoms. What’s the medical situation there? And I understand there has been somewhat of a scandal. Somebody got fired. Explain that.
Arthur League: The person who was fired was the head of the medicine or the doctor, head doctor, for the California Department of Corrections. He was the person in charge of all the medicine there. The interesting part is they fired him, but he never authorized any transfers. So the people who authorized the transfers was the corrections department themselves. He seems to be a scapegoat. I don’t know if he’s a good doctor or a bad doctor. I know that the medicine at San Quentin is terrible, or in the whole Department of Corrections is terrible. In fact, they’re under a consent decree. But, they chose him to be the sacrificial lamb. Why, I just don’t know.
And as far as the guards, they are certainly keeping the tradition alive in terms of making the prisoners the responsible parties in this process. And they themselves were actually running around being very uncooperative around this question. However, not only has COVID-19 exploded amongst the prison population, but it has exploded among the guards. And there is a new awakening and appreciation for what’s going on even among the guards, I think.
Eddie Conway: Amani, if you could, what’s the situation, the medical situation, in those Michigan prisons? Are the guards wearing protective gear? Are the prisoners being kept at a safe distance? What’s actually happening now, if you know?
Amani Sawari: So right now, all of the staff are required to wear face masks. The people, the prisoners are also required to wear face masks. They’ve even been told if they’re not wearing a face mask, that they could get a ticket. So the situations around the coronavirus and how it’s being handled, those methods are actually being used as a form of punishment now, rather than being promoted as a way to keep people healthy. It’s if you’re not wearing your mask, and usually it’s not the most protective type of mask, they actually passed out ripped up t-shirts that folks could use as masks. So that is being required for folks to wear, even though it’s not the most protective thing. And if you’re not wearing it, then you could be punished. You could be sent to solitary. You could be sent into the quarantine area because you’re just assumed to have the virus because you’re not wearing the mask. So now, that’s being used as a form of punishment.
I’ve also heard folks in prison tell me that guards will walk past their cells coughing and laughing, knowing that they’re sick. They’ve witnessed guards falling asleep in the control desk because they know that these people are sick. They’re not healthy, but they’re still being forced to come into work because there is such a shortage of staff members. We can see very plainly that our corrections department has no way to manage this effectively, especially with the current overcrowded conditions that we have in our corrections department.
We still have pole barn prisons that were supposed to be temporary facilities that are still operating, and those have mold. And so, there are so many conditions-
Eddie Conway: Wait, wait one minute. What kind of prisons? I didn’t understand that. What kind of prisons do you still have?
Amani Sawari: So in the ’90s, there were prisons that were built as temporary facilities. So when Michigan started to use its Truth in Sentencing policies, which didn’t allow people to leave any earlier than their minimum, the prison population shot up. And so we currently have seven prisons that are called pole barns that are temporary facilities. So they’re not supposed to house people for longer than a year, but people spend their whole bit there.
And so there are six people, sometimes eight people, to a cell in those spaces. There is mold. There is water damage. It’s not ventilated. These prisons, these facilities were not built to hold people for long periods of time, and yet they’ve been around for nearly a decade.
And so now, it’s even more serious because we have this viral health crisis that’s really highlighting the fact that these prisons need to come down. We also need to change our sentencing laws, so that people that are certainly past their earliest release date can come home. So there are a lot of situations that are making the pandemic even more dangerous here in Michigan, and it’s really has to do with our overcrowded conditions.
Eddie Conway: So Arthur, they are reporting that Governor Newsom is planning to release 8,000 prisoners within the next month or two. And I understand that the California prison system is grossly overcrowded, and in order to even bring it back to normal capacity, at least 29,000 prisoners have to be released. But I understand that doctors are saying that actually 50% of the prison population has to be released in order for the prisons to become safe. What’s the situation there on the ground with the activists, and what kind of demands are being made on the governor? Because 8,000 seems like a drop in the bucket.
Arthur League: I guess the 8,000 is a reflection of some of the pressure that’s being put on by activist organizations in the state. The governor is playing politics with people’s lives, and the prison population is over 130% of normal or capacity. It’s very overcrowded.
The reason the doctors are saying that 50% of the people is these prisons, when they begin to do this thing they call mass incarceration, California went from nine prisons to over 100. I mean, I’m sorry, over 35. And then they added 58 county jails as places where you could keep prisoners, and they’re still that overcrowded. They’ve got people leaving the state going to other states, private prisons in other states. They don’t have them here.
And I think the 8,000 people that the governor is talking about should come home. I think that what it’s about though is to try to essentially trick the population into thinking that there is something being done that’s going to impact this COVID-19 situation. What it does is impact how people are viewing him. He thinks that’s going to get the pressure off. Here on the ground, we’re going to his house. We’re going to the prisons. We’re all over the state demanding that they do a whole lot more than they’re doing.
And the way California prisons are constructed, it’s like eggs in a egg carton. And it’s because they have so many people. Now, they putting tents on the yards. So this notion that 8,000 people is going to make a difference, it only makes a difference in the newspaper or politically, not in any real way.
Eddie Conway: Amani, what is the State doing there, or what are the activists on the ground demanding of the State at this point?
Amani Sawari: One thing that I want to mention is that we still don’t have visits. Across the country there are no visits, but the visiting room has been transformed into a quarantine area as well and so has the educational space. So where there was space to do theater, where there was space to meet with family, now it’s just beds for people to be in quarantine that have contracted the virus.
What we are asking for as a community of activists right now from the State of Michigan are a few things. First, when it comes to communication, we feel like we should have free phone calls across the board. We aren’t able to sit and share space with our loved ones. We’re in the midst of a pandemic, and we can’t check on them, we can’t see them. We need to be able to talk to them. There are long lines at the phone because everyone’s trying to use the phone.
And at Gus Harrison, it wasn’t until today that they installed phones inside of the unit. All the phones were outside on the yard. So we were asking for months for them to put some phones inside so that there would be more places where people could use the phone, especially when people aren’t outside on the yard.
So we want free phone calls. We want to be able to communicate with our loved ones. Also, video visitation, want to be able to see our loved ones. We don’t want that to be a replacement for in-person physical visitation, but that is something that could be incorporated during this time that we’re not able to share space. And especially just to make sure that we can keep people motivated, keep people’s morale high, and really see the people that we love.
We experience this outside, where people are in the hospitals alone, but we can still FaceTime them. Our loved ones are inside, and especially if they’re quarantined, everything is taken from them. We need to be able to see our loved ones. So that’s another thing.
And then also when it comes to sentencing, Michigan is one of the very few states left that’s still holding onto this Truth in Sentencing policy. And there is no truth in the way that we sentence people, because there’s no way that any judge could look at any person and say definitively when they will be fully rehabilitated.
So we’re asking our state to repeal Truth in Sentencing so that we can make sure that there isn’t an overcrowding in the prison and so that resources allocated to our corrections department are more evenly distributed and more effectively distributed to serve all the individuals there. Because right now with the population number and the way that our sentencing structure is, people that are ready to come home can’t come home.
We couldn’t even go for trying to get elderly folks out, trying to get pregnant mothers out because of these Truth in Sentencing policies. It created a barrier that didn’t even allow the department to manage its own population. And so it’s time to repeal those types of laws so that we can get people home that we need to get home during this pandemic.
Eddie Conway: Well, Amani, just as a final statement, can you suggest what the public, loved ones, friends, supporters can do and should be doing right at this point?
Amani Sawari: So right now, there is a couple of really critical things that loved ones and advocates for people’s human rights that are currently in Michigan state prisons can do. One of those things is to check out the Michigan Prison Rehabilitation Credit Act. Right now, MPRCA organizers are in a lawsuit battle with the State to get an extension on the deadline for submitting petitions. And so we have a petition that’s currently live, that’s currently collecting signatures in order to repeal Truth in Sentencing. And we need your signature to get that on the ballot.
So people can go to mprca.info to either download the petition, to sign it online, or to see where pop-up locations will be that they can sign the petition in person if they don’t have access to a printer. And then folks, if they do have access to a printer, can just mail it back to our PO box, which you’ll also find on the website.
And then another thing that’s really important is to make sure that you’re holding prison officials accountable. And so calling in, making sure that you’re checking into your loved one, but then also calling the facility and letting them know that you’re watching. Oh, my loved one wasn’t able to call me, or my loved one, he hasn’t called me in a week. What’s going on there? You are entitled. We are entitled. We are paying the taxes that staff these prison officials, that maintain these facilities.
And so we really need to break down that opaque wall that’s in between the public and what’s going on behind the wall. And that wall is getting thicker because now we can’t visit. People can’t use the phones regularly. People don’t have access to the kiosks. Movements are being monitored. And so that wall is getting thicker. So we need to do what we can to make sure that we break down that wall from the outside. We need to be checking in.
And if you’re not connected with someone on the inside but you consider yourself a prisoner human rights activist, then please connect to someone on the inside that you can support because there are a lot of people during this time that need your support.
Eddie Conway: Arthur, what would you suggest people in California and the nation, in fact, do at this point to try to remedy the situation? Because it’s probably only going to get worse without some really serious action.
Arthur League: Well, I think in California, that I’m certainly more familiar with, the governor has declared a state of emergency, and he has empowered himself with powers under that state of emergency that has essentially set aside the penal code. So every law on the book that tells you how people can get clemency, how people can get pardons, how people can get paroled, are now not valid. The governor has it all in his hand.
What he doesn’t have is the political wheel. And the thing that I would tell people around the country is hold the politicians accountable to the decisions that they’re making and to basically have a real clear understanding that there is a direct pipeline from these institutions where this virus is running rampant and the institutions that people live in. These guards don’t live in the prisons. They come back to the community, and they’re bringing with them to the prisons and to the community from the prisons their environment and what they are themselves open to catch. And for the families to get out there and make some noise.
One of the things that’s happening here in California is that families are really psyched up and are out in the streets. In couple of days, we’ll be going to the head of the California Department of Corrections and the Capitol, and its families leading the way.
Eddie Conway: Okay. Amani, Arthur, thanks for joining me, and we’ll have to revisit this again for a update. So if something happens before that occurs, please contact us so we can follow up. Thank you for joining me.
Amani Sawari: Thank you for having me.
Arthur League: Yes. Thank you.
Eddie Conway: And thank you for joining this episode of Rattling the Bars for The Real News Network.
Eddie Conway is an Executive Producer of The Real News Network. He is the host of the TRNN show Rattling the Bars. He is Chairman of the Board of Ida B's Restaurant, and the author of two books: Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther andThe Greatest Threat: The Black Panther Party and COINTELPRO.A former member of the Black Panther Party, Eddie Conway is an internationally known political prisoner for over 43 years, a long time prisoners' rights organizer in Maryland, the co-founder of the Friend of a Friend mentoring program, and the President of Tubman House Inc. of Baltimore. He is a national and international speaker and has several degrees.