As COVID-19 infections continue to rise throughout the San Joaquin Valley, they’re also ravaging the Valley’s prisons. That’s why two advocacy groups have planned protests this weekend outside prisons in Kings, Fresno and Kern Counties.
At Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, where more than 1,600 incarcerated men have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, nearly 1,200 of those infections have been reported in just the last two weeks. It’s the latest in a scourge of congregate living facilities that has already landed two Kings County institutions, Avenal State Prison and the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison (SATF) in Corcoran, on a list of the largest outbreaks in the country.
Eric Palba, an organizer with the advocacy group Oakland Abolition and Solidarity, says this weekend’s protests demand early releases for some inmates and better living conditions for others. “The purpose is to draw attention to the overall gross mishandling and negligence around the COVID-19 outbreak inside prisons across the system,” he says, “but it’s impacting people most in the Central Valley right now.”
Palba credits inmate transfers, moving men from one dorm to another, and inconsistent enforcement of safety protocols for the fact that thousands of men in the Valley’s prisons have contracted the virus, and more than a dozen have died. Upwards of half the incarcerated men have been infected at many Valley prisons, including Pleasant Valley, and the nearly 3,000 infections at Avenal represent more than 80 percent of that facility’s population. “People are scared and stressed out and looking for ways to fight back,” says Palba, who mentions men incarcerated at SATF recently ended a hunger strike.
The protests, planned for Sunday morning at prisons in Coalinga, Corcoran, Delano and Wasco, were organized by Palba’s group and the statewide advocacy organization We Are Their Voices. Organizers have called for participants to wear masks and observe social distancing.
This story has been edited with the correct location of the organization We Are Their Voices.