More than 80 cars drove around San Quentin prison in Marin County, California on Sat. May 9, to demand protection from COVID-19 for prisoners. Some 2.3 million incarcerated people, including many elderly people, are at risk of contracting the virus.

Speakers at the Stop State Executions by COVID-19 car caravan. Liberation graphic.

The “No State Execution by COVID-19” car caravan was organized by the Labor Action Committee to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal. Supporters included the Party for Socialism and Liberation, CODEPINK, Love Not Blood Foundation, Oscar Grant Committee, Democratic Socialists of America, California Prison Focus and Freedom Socialist Party among others.

Cars drove around the prison as activists organized a press conference at the West Gate of San Quentin, maintaining physical distancing guidelines.

Gloria La Riva, presidential candidate of the PSL, spoke of the need to free Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Julian Assange, and all of the hundreds of thousands who should be freed immediately.

“So many have been wrongly convicted, those who are convicted for being poor, for being Black and Latino,” said La Riva. “Leonard Peltier is one of the longest-held political prisoners. And he is innocent of the charges that he was thrown into prison for, because he represented along with the American Indian Movement, a radical Native American movement in the United States, that was standing up to the power of capital in the U.S.”

Jack Heyman of the Labor Action Committee to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal called on the governor to release all innocent prisoners on death row. “People who are most vulnerable to the virus are people confined in areas like ships, ICE detention centers or jails, and most especially, prisons like San Quentin.” Heyman demanded that “Governor Newsom release Kevin Cooper, an innocent man on death row”.

“Decarceration should happen not simply for the sake of those behind bars, but for everyone’s health,” said organizer Sasha Leitmann of the Labor Action Committee to Free Mumia.

“San Quentin is massively overcrowded,” explained Richard Tan, also of the Labor Action Committee to Free Mumia. “There are two blocks in San Quentin that are functioning at 200 percent of the listed capacity. And when prison is crowded like that, you can’t follow the CDC guidelines, which say the prisoners have to be 6 feet apart so they can practice social distancing.”

“If the state of California doesn’t take immediate action, this is going to be a disaster,” said Tan.

Many organizations sent in messages of support, including the Namibia Institute for Democracy. The Institute in a statement called on California governor Gavin Newsom to protect prisoners from the deadly virus. “These are prison inmates who find themselves in overcrowded conditions, without basic protections and unable to enact physical distancing… The institute remains committed to the well being of citizens around the world. This includes some 45,000 of California’s 110,000 inmates suffering from an underlying medical condition, and countless others across the United States.”

In her message, political activist Angela Davis noted that San Quentin is one of the oldest prisons in the country that has housed many political prisoners. “We remember many of those who spent years and decades of their lives within its walls, including George Jackson, the San Quentin 6, Stanley Tookie Williams, and Kevin Cooper, who has spent half his life on death row for crime he did not commit. While Gavin Newson has issued an executive moratorium on executions as long as he is governor, the failure to respond aggressively to the corona virus has created conditions that may well lead to vast numbers of prisoners dying.”

Inhumane prison conditions expose prisoners to virus

Prisons, many of which are operated for-profit, are forcing prisoners to make masks for guards, and even to dig mass graves for other incarcerated people. Many prisons have stopped family visits, but this has not stopped the spread of the virus.

In 2019 California imposed a moratorium on the death penalty application, but without releasing any of the prisoners there. Before the moratorium, California’s death row population is 737, the largest in the western hemisphere. According to the governor’s office, one in four people on death row in the U.S. are in California.

Kevin Cooper, wrongly imprisoned at San Quentin on Death Row for 35 years, wrote “being on death row with this COVID-19 pandemic raging is like having another death sentence.”

The prisoners must be freed! No state executions by COVID-19! Free them all!