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Photo by Eddie Herena

(This editorial was first published in San Quentin News on Sept. 30)

The screams of “Man Down!” (the incarcerated emergency medical call) rattle around the various San Quentin housing units. The alert starts the sounds of correctional officers loud boots hitting the pavement and their keys jingling adds to the chaos and the panic when the emergency alarms go off.

Medical nurses arrive, covered from head to toe in Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) resembling a sci-fi movie, to administer aid. This scene has played out for months within the prison.

COVID-19 has truly hit San Quentin hard. Twenty-six incarcerated individuals and one correctional officer have died and thousands of others have been infected with the virus transmitted in our community.

Even in these times of crisis, it feels that we (the incarcerated) always have to prove our humanity, our rehabilitation and our willingness to make amends.

The calls for early releases, to curb the surge of COVID-19 and death, has set off an array of emotions from joy of family members and prison reform advocates to fear and indifference from some of the general public.

How did we get here? It has been almost 30 years of constant lawsuits. I do believe some government officials want prison reform and that must be balanced with the concerns of the general public.

But I must say that it has mainly been the incarcerated and our advocates, who have humanized life within California and the nation’s prison system. We (the incarcerated) had to fight for our religious rights (services, artifacts, grooming standards), or access to the courts. We even had to fight to end the indefinite use of solitary confinement and win adequate healthcare — not something special, just adequate.

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California is required to reform prisons to provide constitutionally sufficient physical and mental care to incarcerated people. It’s almost a decade later and “that can” seems to be continually kicked down the road. The cases went from Plata, Coleman vs. Gov. Jerry Brown to Plata, Coleman vs. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Now we are in the midst of a deadly pandemic and approaching flu season. The criteria of who may qualify for early release are very narrow. The debate centers on non-violent offenders versus those who have committed violent crimes.

However, the facts are rarely discussed or considered, mainly because of the type of crimes attached to the individual. According to CDCR’s own recidivism study, more than 50% of prisoners paroled after completion of a determined sentence were convicted of a new crime within three years compared to only 5% of lifer parolees who were convicted of a new crime within three years. A study by Stanford University between 1995 and 2010 found that of 860 murderers paroled in California, only five returned to prison for new felonies, but none that required a life term, such as murder.

So it pains most of us who have done the internal work — those who have worked through the childhood traumas and accepted accountability — to still be considered politically “risky” and not for safety reasons.

We also accept the victim/survivor rights; we believe in their voice. We learned this through participating in our self-help groups. It’s not for us to tell people who have been harmed how they should feel. We must respect the process. We just want to restore what we can.

As the coronavirus spreads and becomes our new reality, our fears of death are real. All we hope for is for society to remember whatever the deed was, most of us weren’t sentenced to death by the state.

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.

Marcus "Wali" Henderson is the former editor-in-chief of San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated. He became a reporter the day he arrived at San Quentin.