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Part 1 of The Pandemic Inside: COVID-19 and Prisons

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In a two-part series, we look at how COVID-19 has torn through prisons and how organizers are trying to push state and local governments to release people in prison in order to contain the spread of the pandemic. In part one, we focus on California. We take a look at why a prison, like San Quentin, is such a perfect environment for infectious diseases, especially an airborne one like COVID-19, how we might safely release large amounts of people currently incarcerated across the prison system, and what we’ve learned from past release programs like realignment.

This story has been supported by the Omnia Foundation and the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

Image Credit: Getty Images

*Story correction: In the audio version of the story, we used a term to refer to people currently incarcerated that can be considered dehumanizing. Language is important. We have updated the written introduction above. For more information on humanizing language to refer to people with criminal records visit the Prison Studies Project.

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  • Swati Rayasam, Public Health Practitioner and Co-Coordinator of Alliance of South Asians Taking Action
  • Chanthon Bun, formerly incarcerated in San Quentin
  • Aaron Littman, Deputy director of UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project
  • James King, State Campaigner at Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
  • Emily Harris, Field Director at Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
  • Hadar Aviram, Thomas Miller Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law
  • Gregory Hooks, Professor of Sociology, McMaster University


  • Host: Salima Hamirani

Making Contact Staff:

  • Executive Director: Sonya Green
  • Staff Producers: Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani

Music Credit:

  • Ketsa – No Light Without Darkness
  • Daniel Birch – The Restless Texture of Shapes
  • Bio Unit – Subterrane
  • Bio Unit – Chase
  • Daniel Birch – The Shapes that Shadows Make
  • Chris Zabriskie – Cylinder Five
  • Hicham Chahidi – Gouttes


Salima Hamirani: I’m Salima Hamirani, and on today’s Making Contact,

Chanthon Bun: I almost died because of COVID, I was so sick, and I wrote a last letter to my family in case I died and left it on my property.

Salima Hamirani: We’re airing a two part series about the outbreak of COVID-19 within prisons, with a special focus on San Quentin in California.

Swati Rayasam: All of our institutions are grossly overcrowded. And so you introduce one person and it is just the case study of how fast an infection spreads.

Hadar Aviram: We are basically creating 36 incubators of COVID in the state.

Salima Hamirani: We talk about mass releases and how they could help combat the staggering numbers in prisons.

Swati Rayasam: Just release them, release them to the families that are waiting for them, release them to their home environments.

Salima Hamirani: And we talk about why there’s so much pushback to the idea. Here’s part one in our series, The Pandemic Inside COVID-19 and California Prisons.

News clip: Seventy-seven thousand of that, more than twenty two hundred have died in Hong Kong. Fifty nine police officers are under quarantine after attending.

Salima Hamirani: We begin our story in San Quentin.

News clip: …positive for coronavirus.

Chanthon Bun: Right before COVID really hit here around December. It was on the news that China has this thing that’s going on and, you know, we’re like, okay. But I wasn’t really paying attention to it because I was getting ready to go to my board hearing to be free on February 28.

Salima Hamirani: That’s Bun, he was in San Quentin State Prison in Northern California when the COVID-19 outbreak hit the U.S.

Chanthon Bun: I appear on board and I gained my freedom after that COVID was really serious.

News clip: The infected passenger passed through busy SeaTac Airport in Seattle, the first confirmed U.S. case of the contagious…

Chanthon Bun: It’s like, hey, it’s spreading. It’s is in the United States. And then the prisons started shutting down like, oh, we’re not giving you visits no more, because I planned for a visit with my and my family before I was detained by ICE and COVID hit that killed my whole plan. I was like, OK, I’m not going to see my family before I leave. And now they’re starting to put up in San Quentin, they’re starting to put up posters.

Salima Hamirani: The posters described what COVID is and how it spreads. But most of the inmates didn’t really pay attention to what the prison officials were saying. They were getting their information other ways.

News clip: Right now, they do still believe that the immediate risk to the American public is low, but that first human to human transfer.

Chanthon Bun: Everybody’s like stuck on the news, especially the older guys that are worried about it. And in San Quentin, it’s a medical facility. So, a lot of people are in it for medical reasons. And all of us were like, it’s going to be a matter of time until it gets in here. And when it gets in here, we’re dead. And we’re like, everybody, we’re dead.

Salima Hamirani: Were you scared?

Chanthon Bun: Yeah, I was like, man, I got my parole date. I got to wait 120 days. And I’m like, February, March, April, May, June.

Swati Rayasam: There were no recorded outbreaks or reported cases at San Quentin or COVID-19 until this transfer happened from the California Institute of Men.

Salima Hamirani: That’s Swati Rayasam from the Stop San Quentin Outbreak Coalition. She’s also a science associate at the University of California, San Francisco. She explains how the outbreak at San Quentin began in May of 2020.

Swati Rayasam: They transferred a small number of incarcerated folks, involuntary transfers to help mitigate an outbreak that was currently ongoing. And unfortunately, they transferred them in and mixed in with general population, but really failed to do even the most basic public health preventative guidelines failed to test them.

Chanthon Bun: They say, hey, there, Chino has a big outbreak, Chino State Prison. And we’re watching this on a news like, oh, dudes are dying. Ten people die, 11 like, damn. Chino’s getting hit hard. The next thing we knew, they brought a bus from Chino. Once they brought a bus in from Chino two guys said, hey, I got symptoms.

Salima Hamirani: Then COVID began circulating through San Quentin very quickly.

Chanthon Bun: People start getting COVID. These old guys just start to fall out. They start getting COVID and then they’re like, you know what, we’re going to test a few people just to see how many people, you know, if somebody has it we’re going to see.

Salima Hamirani: At first, the prison just tested a few inmates, so they had no idea how bad COVID had gotten inside. But eventually, as more and more people started to fall ill. Prison officials finally decided to start mass COVID testing.

Chanthon Bun: When they did that, one major test, it came back a number just skyrocketed. Hundreds are sick in San Quentin.

Swati Rayasam: At any carceral facility, any place like San Quentin, it’s a powder keg. The buildings, especially San Quentin, the building is so old. It has seen numerous outbreaks before based on the fact that the building is really poorly designed. It is overcrowded. All of our institutions are grossly overcrowded. And so, you introduce one person and it is just the case study of how fast an infection spreads.

Chanthon Bun: One time I was scared COVID with the open cell I blocked where I slept at so the air don’t get in there with towels and stuff. They try to write me up. I’ll write you up. I said, “do you know it’s COVID, right? Yeah, I could catch it. Nah, I’m write you up”. And me getting a parole date already, like oh, I can’t get a write up. That’ll stop my whole parole date. So, I left it open. So, I started getting symptoms.  My roommate, he has COVID. I was like man I hope is just a headache, but I’m getting night sweats. And I was scared that if I say I got COVID, they’re going to take my date, lock me up, do something.

Salima Hamirani: At first, Bun’s symptoms were light. They even seemed to disappear once in a while.

Chanthon Bun: Once in a while they come to check me. My temperature is fine. My oxygen level is fine.

Salima Hamirani: But in reality, the virus was all over San Quentin and Bun did have COVID. It got very, very serious.

Chanthon Bun: I was severely sick. I almost died because of COVID. I was so sick and actually I didn’t have no hope of being free. I was like, I’m going to go. I wrote a last letter to my family in case I died and left it in my property.

Salima Hamirani: Eventually, 75 percent of prisoners within San Quentin tested positive for COVID-19. That’s a phenomenal infection rate, but the virus didn’t stop at one facility. Currently, California has one of the worst outbreaks within its carceral system in the entire world. How bad? Here’s Aaron Littman. He’s a deputy director of the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project.

Aaron Littman: All but two California prisons have some active COVID cases virtually everyone. One of them, the California men’s colony, there’s over a thousand cases.

Salima Hamirani: The true scale of the pandemic inside isn’t totally clear. Researchers like Aaron have to rely on the prisons themselves to get the data that they need.

Aaron Littman: Prisons are inherently, by design, opaque, secretive places not used to transparency, and that has persisted through the pandemic.

Salima Hamirani: Aaron uses data published by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR.

Aaron Littman: The number that’s reported is, is certainly an undercount but CDCR is currently reporting just over 4,400 active cases. They’ve had 44,500 in total. At least 144 people have died of COVID.

Salima Hamirani: And it’s not just the prisoners.

Aaron Littman: Over the course of the pandemic, just over 14,000 staff have tested positive.

Salima Hamirani: For some comparison, the infection rate within prisons is about seven times higher than the general population. The death rate is also much higher.

Aaron Littman: As of the summer, the age adjusted death rate, meaning the death rate that you would expect if the distribution of ages was the same in the prison population and the general population was three times higher.

Salima Hamirani: While the pandemic is bad on the outside, the situation is clearly much worse inside prison walls. So, what do we do? How do we protect prisoners and stop the spread of COVID inside carceral facilities?

Senate hearing: The Senate Public Safety Committee and the Senate Special Pandemic Emergency Response Committee will come to order.

Salima Hamirani: In November of 2020 the California State Senate held a special hearing about COVID in prisons.

Senate hearing: We will hear from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and others about the work to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in state prisons and what has occurred during the four and a half months since the earlier Senate hearing on these topics.

Salima Hamirani: During the hearing, Dr. Joseph Vick, who is a director of correction health care services for CA, outlined the agency’s new COVID guidelines.

Dr. Hick, CDCR:  For additional specific strategies and practices that have been implemented, including have included reducing nonessential movement, expanding our COVID testing capacity and reducing turnaround times so that we receive most results within two days. We also mandated the use of N95 masks for all inmates and patients and staff during our transportation. And utilizing these revised transfer protocols, we’ve safely transferred over 7,000 patients between institutions over the last several months without incident.

Salima Hamirani: We did reach out to CDCR, but we were told they’re not granting interviews at this time. From the hearing, we know that CDCR has expanded COVID protocols due to past concerns about staff refusing protective equipment there’s now a mask mandate. There’s more routine testing. There’s more hand sanitizer. But for observers like Swathi, these measures are not enough.

Swati Rayasam: Definitely stop trying to involuntarily transfer people, just release them.

Salima Hamirani: Swathi and other advocates think the other protective measures introduced by CDCR are bound to fail, and that’s because of the way prisons work. So, let’s take a few minutes to talk about why the design of American prisons creates such a perfect pandemic environment.

First off, prisons aren’t designed to stop a pandemic. They’re meant to contain a lot of people. And so, once a virus enters a prison, it’s impossible, even with really high medical standards to stop its spread.

Swati Rayasam: Everybody is impossibly close. There is no social distancing inside of a carceral facility, period.

Chanthon Bun: When there’s a flu outbreak, we get locked down because they cannot stop a flu, a normal flu outbreak. They cannot stop it.

Salima Hamirani: And San Quentin situation is particularly bad because it’s so overcrowded.

Chanthon Bun: San Quentin is made for one person occupancy in a cell, but due to overcrowding, they double bunked everybody. I mean, if people could think about it is like living in a bathroom, a you know, a small bathroom. We can’t socially distance because it’s open bar. So, from my cell to my neighbor. So, it’s about not even a foot, it’s a concrete away.

Swati Rayasam: You have these folks who are sharing sanitation facilities and who are sharing eating facilities, whatever. You have folks who are working inside of the prison, right. You have guys who work in chow.

Salima Hamirani: There’s also a lot of movement within a prison, which might be surprising to hear guards move about. And as Swati mentioned, inmates help keep the facility running.

Swati Rayasam: Those folks are super vulnerable because they’re essential workers inside of the carceral economy.

Chanthon Bun: And these are the guys that’s going into the kitchen, getting the food and, you know, helping clean up. And they were running around like they were the runners. They’re running around the tiers, open tiers, talking to everybody, not knowing that they’re carrying COVID because they’re not showing signs.

Salima Hamirani: And finally, guards have a habit of using punishment to control behavior, which actually makes the disease much worse. Here’s how Hadar Aviram, a lawyer working on litigation on behalf of San Quentin prisoners, charging mishandling of the pandemic by prison officials.

Hadar Aviram: One of the big problems that happened in the San Quentin outbreak was exactly that. The medical authorities of the prison sort of confounded medical things with punishment, things. Like, for example, people reported symptoms or tested positive they were being sent to isolation in solitary confinement. Those are cells that for decades are associated with punishment, with bad things that happen to them. You can’t do that. What you’re doing is discouraging people from testing and discouraging people from reporting symptoms.

Chanthon Bun: People will hide from solitary because on a normal flu, if they take it you’re sick and you’ve got the flu, they take you put you in solitary without the comfort you already have, not throwing you into an empty cell, a dirty cell with nothing in there, nothing to soothe yourself. They’re not giving you nothing to help you. So, everybody’s like, I’d rather stay in my cell. Take care of myself with some of the little comfort that I have.

Swati Rayasam: And then what you’re doing is you’re staying out in the general population and you’re infecting other people because I don’t have a humane way to actually manage your illness.

Chanthon Bun: And they’re not admitting it because they want to risk people’s life is just they’re like, we don’t trust the CDCR are they’re not doing nothing for us. And we’re hearing people in death row dying or people going to solitary, dying by themselves. So, you know, in our situation, like, I don’t want that.

Salima Hamirani: As a death rate from COVID began to mount, so did organizing and legal challenges. The First District Court of Appeal in California in October ruled that the prison system had shown, quote, deliberate indifference in its handling of the pandemic, which was, quote, constitutionally untenable.

Hadar Aviram: The prison claimed that they were doing other commendable things like giving people protective equipment and cleaning up and hanging posters and whatever it is that they were doing. And the decision that we got in in one such case was that was not enough.

News clip: A California appeals court is ordering the state to cut the prison population at San Quentin in half because of COVID-19. About 75 percent of the inmates at San Quentin have tested positive for coronavirus. Twenty-eight…

Salima Hamirani: The ruling sounds like a huge victory for prisoners, but it’s a little complicated.

News clip: The state says the order means eleven hundred inmates will have to either be released or sent to other prisons. State prison officials have not said if they will appeal the court’s ruling.

Hadar Aviram: If the judges had said you need to release these people, this would have probably been overturned on appeal pretty easily because they’re basically imposing their discretion on who’s dangerous and dangerous on the prison authority’s discretion. That’s not what they did. They said we’re going to leave it up to CDCR. So, first of all, they’ve been fighting the decision tooth and nail. So, they’re now asking the California Supreme Court. They’ve petitioned the California Supreme Court for review. But the problem is that even if the remedy is enforced, it still leaves them discretion to transfer in order to comply with a judge’s orders.

Salima Hamirani: CDCR wants to transfer inmates out of San Quentin into other institutions, not release them. So why is this a problem?

James King: So there’s actually no safe way to conduct the transfer.

Salima Hamirani: That’s James King from the Ella Baker Center.

James King: And one other thing that I would say about transfers from my experience being incarcerated, let’s say CDCR has found some safe protocol in order to conduct transfers. Let’s just give them that and assume that’s true. There is no evidence that it will be followed to the letter, the way that it’s drafted. For instance, one of the things that happens when a transfer is a person is tested. After that testing, they are then in contact with their cell mates, with the guards, with other people in their vicinity. So, there’s no way to actually isolate them.

Salima Hamirani: And if CDCR cannot ensure prisoners are COVID free before transferring them between institutions.

Hadar Aviram: That’s just moving people around the system from dangerous place to dangerous place, playing Tetris with human lives. There’s no way to safely move them. This is what started this mess in the first place. And more people will get sick, and more people will die.

Salima Hamirani: Currently, CDCR has at least been forced to limit how many transfers are able to do.

Hadar Aviram: The problem they’re facing now, and this is why they’ve had to freeze the transfers that they were planning to do, is that there actually is nowhere to transfer people. There is not a single prison in CDCR that does not have a COVID outbreak right now.

Salima Hamirani: As of airing this piece, CDCR has started to fight the ruling to reduce San Quentin’s population, and it has not released 50 percent of inmates as ordered. Meanwhile, COVID numbers continue to skyrocket in all California prisons.

You’re listening to Making Contact and part one of our series, The Pandemic Inside COVID-19 and Prisons. To keep up to date on our shows and get behind the scenes information, visit radio project, dawg. And now back to our show.

Welcome back to Making Contact. We’re talking about COVID-19 in California prisons and the possibility of mass release as a way to fight the pandemic. One of the surprising realizations I had while researching this piece and talking to prison experts is that we’ve actually been here before. About 10 years ago, courts had ordered all California prisons to cut their inmate population.

Hadar Aviram: Every prison has a certain number of people that it’s designed to hold. And for many, many decades in California, our prisons were grossly overcrowded. So throughout much of the 20th century, much of the late 20th century and up until 2009, our prison system overall was at two hundred percent capacity. So, we actually had twice as many people as the prison is equipped to hold. And then one of the outcomes of that was that it was impossible to give people minimal health care. So, people were getting sick. They weren’t seeing doctors for months and sometimes years. The pharmacy, the administration was a mess. And the result of that was that once every six days, somebody would die out of a completely preventable disease just because of system neglect. There was litigation going on about both the physical and mental health aspects of this going on for quite a while, a class action.

Salima Hamirani: Eventually, the class action suit reached the Supreme Court of California. Here’s Emily Harris from the Ella Baker Center.

Emily Harris: And the Supreme Court upheld lower court rulings in the case that was called Plodder Coleman. That meant that CDCR, the Department of Corrections in California needed to reduce the population of the prisons that, like a constitutional amount of overcrowding, would be one hundred and thirty seven point five percent of design capacity.

Salima Hamirani: Which is still overcrowded but is better than being at 200 percent capacity. At that time, the policy, called realignment, was seen as a huge victory. It would have been one of the biggest releases of prisoners in a state which had until then incarcerated more people than anywhere else in the world. But once again, the reality of the situation was a little complicated.

Emily Harris: People think that it meant that people were released. Nobody was released. It was an attrition. So, CDCR stopped accepting people who were serving low level felonies. So non serious, nonviolent non sex offenses in the past, anybody who is serving over a year or more for a felony conviction would serve that in state prison. But now, if you are serving a low-level felony, you would serve your time in county jail.

Salima Hamirani: Which then became grossly overcrowded.

Emily Harris: So, we know there’s been an uptick in violence in jails, deaths in jails.

 Salima Hamirani: Transferring prisoners from state prison to local jails created a new set of problems for organizers and prison advocates.

Emily Harris: The majority of counties in the state of California have been trying to build new jails. Many have built new jails. And then there’s been a significant amount of organizing happening to fight jail expansion. And all of that was because sheriffs were like, hey, now we’re overcrowded. And then I think because the state had pissed off the sheriffs by moving all of these people to them, the state was like, of course, we’ll give you all this money to build jails.

Salima Hamirani: The parallels to what’s happening now are inescapable, and Emily Harris wants us to be very cautious about the consequences of legal and organizing battles now during the pandemic,

Emily Harris: You know, realignment was seen as a major reform, this major victory. And a lot of ways it was just like a yeah, renegotiation. And then what happens in that was for a really long time, you couldn’t put sheriffs on blast about the conditions because it was like, well, we just did it. We have to let it play out. We have to, like, give it a chance to work. And then it’s like five more years and a hundred more people are dead. So, we have to not try to make another solution that we’re going to ultimately have to fix later.

Salima Hamirani: There’s one other legacy from realignment, which is really important to understand, because it’s had repercussions on today’s decisions about COVID and releasing prisoners.

Hadar Aviram: Another thing that this did is it cemented this idea that there’s a difference between so-called violent and nonviolent inmates. The problem is that from a public health perspective, this distinction doesn’t actually mean anything. Here is what we actually know. And this is one of the areas in criminology where we have so much robust research on this that we can say this with a pretty high degree of certainty. Generally speaking, there is very little, if any, correlation between what the person’s doing time for and whether they’re going to reoffend.

The people that we think of as risky on the basis of their offensive commitment are not necessarily more dangerous and in fact, for many categories of offenses, it’s a lot more likely that people who are convicted of lesser offenses are going to reoffend than people convicted for very serious crimes. A big part of why this is true has to do with age. A lot of the people in California prisons who are doing time for very serious crimes. I’m talking things like murders, armed robberies, like very serious crimes are old.

There are people who have been doing decades behind bars. Not only does that deteriorate your health to the point that committing violent offenses is kind of a challenge, but people just age out of crime, people tend to age out of crime around their mid 20s. In fact, we are far less at risk from this kind of sixty-five-year-old man with a lung condition living quietly with his family on the outside than we are of the same person incubating this disease behind bars and infecting you and yours as well as the people behind bars.

Salima Hamirani: This is the hardest part to grapple with because the idea of releasing violent offenders terrifies people, of course, because people want to be safe. But if Hadar is right and some violent offenders are safe to release, we do have to consider releasing them because one of the other surprising realizations I had while investigating this piece is that prisons play a very particular role in pandemics.

Hadar Aviram: So, there’s this myth that the prison is impermeable, that it’s locked, but actually nothing could be farther from the truth. The prisons are very permeable. Every day, thousands of people go in and out of every prison in the country. So, it’s easy to think of the prison not as having this metal gate, but more kind of like a mesh that things go through in and out all the time. And of course, this is exactly the kind of opportunity that a virus is looking for.

Salima Hamirani: I didn’t really understand much about how prisons contribute to disease. So, to learn more about the connection between prisons and COVID specifically, I reached out to a researcher named Gregory Hooks.

Gregroy Hooks: So my name’s Gregory Hooks. I’m a professor of sociology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. I began work on this in the late spring and the numbers coming out of prisons and jails were absolutely horrific. And so, it seemed to me fairly obvious that prisons were ongoing super spreader events.

Salima Hamirani: Gregory did a study with the Prison Policy Institute and he wanted to know whether the outbreak within prisons was affecting the communities around them.

Gregroy Hooks: So one of the things that we looked at in the study is we looked at the larger economic area. So these are the counties where people would commute to work, wholesale, retail, different, different sorts of economic activities.

Salima Hamirani: And he focused on economic areas because that’s how a virus spreads. It’s not just the immediate vicinity and interactions, but many generations of interactions that allow a pandemic to take hold. Here’s what he found.

Gregroy Hooks: We looked at the growth in COVID-19 from May until August. I do have intentions to update this through the year. But as of August, we estimated that the Los Angeles saw nearly one hundred thousand additional cases, ninety-four thousand cases. The New York economic area, we believe, got something like sixty-four thousand. So certain cities got hit very hard.

Salima Hamirani: And for the country as a whole.

Gregroy Hooks: According to our analysis, there were over five hundred and sixty six thousand cases of confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of August 1st.

Salima Hamirani: That’s over half a million additional cases of COVID just linked to the presence of prisons, and that’s just by August of 2020.

Gregory Hooks:  For me that number was eye popping. Again, this is in August. And compared to current rates, that seems like a small number because the US has a pandemic out of control. But as of August 1st, if you compare the number of cases that we linked to mass incarceration, to the total number of cases reported in the world. That would have been fifth in the world, and I suspect if I rerun these numbers, rerun these analyzes and updated through the year, you’re talking about caseloads that are just staggering. This is the tip of the iceberg. I believe.

Salima Hamirani: That was Gregory Hooke’s talking about his research with the Prison Policy Institute, and that’s it for this edition of Making Contact. Again, this was just part one of a two-part series. So make sure to join us next week for part two of the Pandemic Inside COVID-19 and Prisons. We’ll talk a lot more about mass releases jails in Florida, and we’ll also talk about the possibility of vaccinations.

Chanthon Bun: I try to say goodbye to all the people I knew in my block. They were all sick.

Salima Hamirani: In the meantime, please visit us at to learn more. On Facebook, we’re making contact and on instagram we’re making contact radio project. The Making Contact team includes Sonya Green, Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson, Sabine Blazin. And I’m Salima Hamirani.

Thanks for listening to Making Contact.


Author: Radio Project

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