California is by far the largest state in the nation and has experienced its share of coronavirus cases since the pandemic started earlier this spring. Through August 16th, The New York Times reports over 628,000 cases in The Golden State along with over 11,000 deaths.
While those numbers are troubling enough, it is the statistics coming from the state’s death row at San Quentin State Prison that have caught the attention of many as of late. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, twelve of California’s 714 death row inmates have died as a result of COVID-19 over the last two months.
How the Coronavirus Came to San Quentin
While the details of how the coronavirus reached the prison and its East Block where death row inmates are housed are still uncertain, some are pointing to the events of May 30th. On that day, prison officials introduced to the South Block of San Quentin, 121 prisoners who had been at a previously infected prison in San Bernardino County. Once the prisoners from the infected prison were mixed with the prisoners at San Quentin, coronavirus cases exploded.
In addition to the death of the twelve death row inmates, the prison has had over 2000 coronavirus cases and thirteen deaths in other wings of the prison. To date, one prison worker has also died from the coronavirus.
The outbreak at San Quentin has caused many to question the wisdom of moving prisoners from an infected prison to one that had no cases. And with the high rate of infection, and death among death row prisoners, debate on the issue of capital punishment has resurfaced.
Virus Raises Capital Punishment Debate
For decades Californians have wrestled with the death penalty. In both 2012 and 2016 voters in the state failed to get rid of capital punishment. Decades earlier, capital punishment had been brought back in the late 1970s, and since that time over a dozen men have been put to death in California. However, it has been years since the state has executed an inmate and with Governor Newsom’s moratorium on capital punishment, Californa isn’t really a death penalty state.
It is California’s history of not using the death penalty that has made the coronavirus deaths at San Quentin so frustrating. While there are over 700 men condemned to die in the East Block of the prison, it is very unlikely that any of them would face death in the near future. The process that leads from conviction to execution is very long and filled with opportunities to appeal. In many cases, it can take 20 years or more for an inmate’s appeal process to run its course.
With the chances of death remote, questions of due process and proper care are making their way around the state. If these men are unlikely to be put to death any time soon, what do prison officials need to do to ensure their safety?
To be sure, every year prisoners on death row die from one cause or another. As The Mercury News reported, since 1978, 158 death row inmates have died. Of those 88 died of natural causes, while fifteen overdosed on drugs, and 28 committed suicide. Last year, for example, nine death row inmates died, “six from natural causes, two from drugs, and one by suicide.”
Still, as the Chronicle reported, many of the death row inmates are at some stage in the appeal process and a number of them are even winning small victories that could one day lead to their freedom. And while it is rare for death penalty rulings to be overturned, DNA evidence has proven the innocence of around 170 death row inmates across the country.
Questions and Implications
These factors lead to the question of whether poor care gets in the way of due process. If, while battling through the appeal process, an inmate contracts the coronavirus and dies, either because of negligence or poor decision making on the part of prison officials, has that inmate been denied due process under the law? Or, are conditions that lead to such rapid spread of a deadly disease the result of cruel and unusual punishment?
These are two of the questions coming out of San Quentin and California during the time of the coronavirus. And while there are no easy answers, they will be part of the fallout the coronavirus leaves in its wake.