By Rusty Simmons
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN QUENTIN, Calif. — Called to action by the catastrophic outbreak of COVID-19 inside San Quentin State Prison, protesters stretched nearly the length of the village’s Main Street to the prison gates Sunday.
Hundreds from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, interfaith religious groups, family members of inmates, and former prisoners filled the quaint Marin County neighborhood. They held signs of protest, cheering and chanting as leaders addressed the crowd with demands directed at Gov. Gavin Newsom and Ralph Diaz, head of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
As recently as last month, the prison reported zero coronavirus cases among its incarcerated population. However, that changed after 121 men were transferred in late May to San Quentin from the California Institution for Men in Chino, the site of the prison system’s deadliest outbreak.
By Sunday afternoon, 871 prisoners and 89 staff members were confirmed to be infected, according to the state’s web tracker. The count spiked by 258 cases since Saturday.
“This is not just incompetence,” said Emile DeWeaver, who spent 21 years in prison, including seven at San Quentin. “This is about power, who has it and how they choose to wield it.”
DeWeaver, who had his 67-year prison sentence commuted by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017, drew thunderous reactions from the crowd as he explained how the people could regain the power and detailed demands that should be made to the governor and CDCR secretary.
Among the demands, protesters asked Newsom to grant mass clemency and release prisoners, asked the CDCR to stop collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and asked for the end of transfers between prisons during the pandemic.
Neither the Governor’s Office nor the CDCR responded to requests for comments about the demands Sunday. A day earlier, the transfer of inmates from San Quentin to a prison in the Bakersfield area was halted after two tested positive.
That’s a start, but not nearly enough, according to the protesters, who paused a two-hour demonstration a handful of times to peacefully move people, banners, microphones and speakers out of the street to allow prison workers to drive through the gates.
Movement isn’t quite so easy inside San Quentin, where the 3,600-plus incarcerated represent more than 100% of the designed capacity.
“They have no freedom to wash their hands, use soap or socially distance,” said the Rev. Deb Lee, who used to teach tai chi at the prison. “This is taking away their dignity.”
With people holding signs such as “Care, not cages” and “Can’t get well in a cell,” a series of speakers rotated to the microphones at the front of the crowd. Some directed chants, with the leader saying: “Free them,” and the crowd responding “all” or “now.”
Others prompted the crowd to fall into silence while sharing heartfelt stories. Oakland’s Shawanda Scott, who identified as “Mama Bear,” told the crowd that her son was locked behind the gates that made the backdrop of her emotional speech.
“My son will be mad at me, because I am cussing, but I give no f—,” she said, before turning her message to the CDCR. “Let him go. I can take care of my son. You’ve proven that you cannot.”
Organizers of the demonstration gave out the phone numbers of Newsom and Diaz and prompted the crowd to call them every other day until all of the demands are met.
The groups also are asking for adequate coronavirus testing for incarcerated people and prison staff and that staff be regulated to work in only one part of the prison to avoid spreading the virus.
According to published demands of the incarcerated community, they are also asking for free personal protective equipment, hygiene products and essential goods until the end of the pandemic. With visitation suspended for three months, they are asking for free tele-visits.
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