Incarceration Nation

U.S. Prisons: Mass Releases Demanded!

A report on San Quentin action

By Chris Kinder

Mass releases from prisons was demanded by a large march and rally at San Quentin prison in California on Sunday, August 2, 2020. Some 600-700 people marched almost a mile from Larkspur ferry to the prison entrance, behind a banner demanding that Governor Newsom order “Mass Releases Now!” and “No Executions by Covid-19.” They chanted, “Let them go,” as they approached the prison entrance.

This action, organized by the No Justice Under Capitalism (NJUC) coalition, was supported by the Oscar Grant Committee and the Labor Action Committee To Free Mumia Abu-Jamal—both founding members of the coalition—and by California Prison Focus, and the We Are Their Voices organization, which includes many family members of prisoners, as well as many other organizations and individuals.

Rally at San Quentin prison

As the marchers arrived, a rally was held at the West Entrance to the prison. Rally speakers denounced the lack of action by Governor Newsom, who has the power to release prisoners to protect them from the petri dishes for the pandemic that prisons are. One of those who spoke reported the death just that afternoon of his long-time friend, inmate Orlando Romero, who died in a hospital of Covid-19. He, as others, was not sent to the hospital in time.

Militants at the rally went down to the gates to the prison and shouted demands to the prison guards inside. Soon, there were a dozen more guards mobilized to protect this prison neighborhood, which includes a staff housing complex as well as the prison. Protect it from what? There was no violence at this action.

“It sure feels like I’m on
death row”

Newsom’s announced release of 8,000 prisoners because of the virus in no way solves the problem. This number of releases still keeps California prisons occupied beyond their designed capacity. Health workers have called for 50 percent of prisoners to be released, at a minimum.

Two prisoners called in during the rally, and were, with some difficulty, broadcast to the rally. Inmate Charles Sydney said, “With this pandemic going on it sure feels like I’m on death row.”

San Quentin’s death total from the mishandling of this health emergency is now at 25 deaths as of August 11, 2020, the highest death toll of any California prison. And if there was any question about the danger of this virus in prisons, it should be known that California prisons have 81.2 confirmed cases per 1,000 people, compared to 14.3 per 1,000 in the U.S. overall. And San Quentin? It has 674.9 cases per 1,000 people! (CDCR statistics)

The deadly transfer

San Quentin had no cases of Covid-19 until a transfer of 121 prisoners not recently tested, who were moved from the prison in Avenal—a virus hot spot—to San Quentin, and to another prison, in mid-May. This bungled transfer resulted in a quick escalation of cases in San Quentin, which now total 2,215 confirmed cases total (includes deaths, releases and resolved cases). 258 staff have also been infected.

The first demonstration by the NJUC—a car caravan/protest on May 9th—warned of this problem. We then demonstrated again on June 20th, as the cases had begun to ramp up in San Quentin. NJUC militants also demonstrated at Newsom’s house on July 5th.

Storm the Bastille!

Prisons like San Quentin lack adequate health facilities, and have inadequate cleanliness supplies such as soap, masks, and disinfectant. San Quentin, as speakers at the rally reported, is now providing only cold food—no hot meals—to its many prisoners!

Prisons under capitalism today are not that different from the dungeons of the feudal era. The French Revolution of 1789 began with the masses storming the Bastille, the main dungeon in Paris at the time. The capitalist system that followed installed a new ruling class, which did not abolish prisons—far from it.

Our task today? Keep up the fight and abolish the prisons by abolishing capitalism!