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The California Department of Correction and Rehabilitations (CDCR) recently decided to award some extraordinary conduct credit to its incarcerated population for helping maintain safety and security during this COVID-19 pandemic. 

CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz wrote in a recent memorandum, “As of July 9, 2020, CDCR will implement a one-time Positive Programming Credit (PPC) award for eligible inmates.” This award will provide 12 weeks of credit to those inmates who have not committed a serious rule violation and who have not been sentenced to death or life without the possibility of parole.

According to the Secretary, “These credits will be coded under the existing Extraordinary Conduct Credit (Title 15 Section 3043.6), which allows the division of Adult Institutions to award credit to an inmate who has ‘provided exceptional assistance in maintaining the safety and security of a prison.’ ” All credits are said to be awarded by August 1, 2020.

While this credit award is applauded as an important step in the right direction, many believe it fails to recognize the heroic conduct of all incarcerated critical workers who put their lives on the line during this COVID-19 pandemic — many of whom have now contracted the virus.

These critical workers include incarcerated people who made masks and hand sanitizer for both staff and the incarcerated population, kitchen workers who helped facilitate the service of hot meals, hospice care workers who aided the elderly and infirm, hospital cleaning crews who worked directly with the COVID-19 virus patients, as well as porters, sanitation workers, and those who helped maintain the office and grounds of the prisons.

Nobody knows the extent of the damage that COVID-19 survivors have suffered or the future illnesses they face. “I have never seen a virus or any pathogen that has such a broad range of manifestations, “Dr. Anthony Fauci reportedly said in a Financial Times interview. “Even if it doesn’t kill you, even if it doesn’t put you in the hospital, it can make you seriously ill.” 

COVID-19 can affect the brain, heart, liver, kidneys, lungs and other organs. Neurological symptoms accompanying the COVID-19 infection may linger after recovery, and show up weeks, months or even years later. According to researchers at John Hopkins University and the journal Brain, “chaos in the body” from all the various biological changes and symptoms could contribute to brain issues like delirium, brain inflammation, strokes and a potentially life-threatening condition called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis.

Extending credits to critical workers is within the purview of the memorandum. Section 3043.6 states that “the director of the Division of Adult Institutions may award up to twelve months of extraordinary conduct credits to any inmate who has performed a heroic act in a life-threatening situation or who has provided exceptional assistance in maintaining the safety and security of a prison, in accordance with 3376 (d) (3) (C) or subsection 3376.1 (d) (6).”

At a minimum incarcerated critical workers who survive COVID-19 should receive the entire twelve months of extraordinary conduct credits for their services. Some incarcerated critical workers have not only caught the COVID-19 virus but have died from it. The CDCR’s actions do not go far enough to recognize that human sacrifice. Awarding only three month’s worth of conduct credit is too little and for those who have lost their lives due to CDCR’s careless practices, far too late. 

What is ironic about CDCR’s award of extraordinary conduct credits is that it recognizes incarcerated people for providing exceptional assistance in maintaining the safety and security of CDCR prisons. But the same cannot be said for CDCR officials.

On May 30, 2020, CDCR officials made the decision to transfer 121 incarcerated people from the heavily infected California Institute for Men in Chino to San Quentin. Sixteen of these men were infected with the COVID-19 virus. Before they arrived, San Quentin had zero infections. Within three weeks the rate of infections at San Quentin skyrocketed to almost 1300 incarcerated people and nearly 200 staff members. 

Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a UCSF infectious disease specialist said that San Quentin is now “the Chernobyl of COVID-19 infections, “according to NBC Bay Area News. From a medical perspective, Chin said, “keeping vulnerable people inside the prison is like keeping someone in a burning house without evacuating them and putting out the fire.”

At least one infected incarcerated person was transferred to Corcoran from the Chino prison. Corcoran officials contend that they had no infections among its incarcerated population prior to this person arriving at the prison. Since then the prison saw over 100 infections.

While incarcerated people have been trying to practice safety and security the same cannot be said for prison officials. A Lassen County state prison was also heavily infected with over 200 coronavirus cases among the incarcerated population after infected people were transferred there from San Quentin. 

One incarcerated person I had an opportunity to speak to after he contracted the virus said, “I couldn’t even get out of bed to go to the toilet two feet away, I had to urinate on myself.”

There are now more than 5,815 COVID-19 infections that have been reported in CDCR and over 2,300 of these infections were still active as of this writing. More than 700 staff members have also been infected. Over 30 incarcerated people and several staff members have died. Many of these COVID-19 infections may have been prevented if it were not for the unsafe prison transfers ordered by CDCR officials. 

Given CDCR‘s carelessness in spreading this virus it does seem only fair that those incarcerated men and women who continued stepping outside of their cells as critical workers during this COVID-19 pandemic should be given more credit than those who sheltered-in place. 

Critical workers should be recognized for both their bravery during this life-threatening pandemic and for their exceptional assistance in ensuring the safety and security of the prisons. They should be, at minimum, awarded the entire twelve months of extraordinary conduct credits. 

In the end, this gesture won’t bring back the dead and it may not benefit incarcerated people much as far as advancing their parole eligibility date. But when people are recognized for their humanity and sacrifice, during a humanitarian crisis, it can be, in and of itself, a truly liberating experience. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Steve Brooks is a writer for San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated. He has been published in the San Francisco Public Press, Street Spirit, All of Us or None and Voice of Witness. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has won a 2020 Journalism Excellence Award by SPJ's Northern California chapter for two of his columns published by PJP.