Protesters chain themselves to California governor's house as prison deaths rise

Demonstrators chained themselves to a fence outside Gov. Gavin Newsom’s home on Monday, calling for mass inmate releases and an end to immigration transfers because of the coronavirus pandemic, as deaths mounted at a San Francisco Bay Area prison.

The California Highway Patrol cut the chains linking protesters to the bars of the gate at the front of the residence in suburban Sacramento after about two hours.

Television footage showed 14 demonstrators sitting cross-legged and chained to each other and the front gate, wearing surgical-style masks and plastic face shields to keep from spreading the virus.

They were arrested without injury or incident on charges of unlawful assembly, trespassing and failing to disperse after a warning, the CHP said. It said demonstrators also spray-painted messages in the street and sidewalk.

The California Liberation Collective organized the protest that it said included several community organizers who are in the country illegally as well as immigration attorneys whose clients risk becoming infected.

The 14 were backed by dozens of other protesters calling for more prison releases because of outbreaks, particularly at San Quentin State Prison. Nineteen inmates have now died there, including a 10th inmate from death row over the weekend, tying the death toll with the California Institution for Men east of Los Angeles.

Demonstrators want Newsom to grant mass clemency and order more earlier releases to reduce the prison population, the collective said in a statement. The governor has previously ordered steps projected to lead to the early release of about 10,000 inmates, or nearly 10% of the inmate population.

The collective called that “too little, too late.”

One banner hanging from the governor’s gate read “Free Them All.”

The group accuses Newsom of “hypocrisy” for putting a moratorium on executions while he is governor but said he has “presided over dozens of preventable deaths in state prisons” and “issues hollow statements about racial justice while leaving Black and Brown people to die in squalid cells.”

“We’re moving in a methodical way, but a judicious way,” Newsom responded.

“The worst thing we could do is mass release” and risk thousands of inmates becoming homeless during the pandemic," he said. “That’s not compassion.”

The collective also called on Newsom, a Democrat, to halt transfers of inmates from state and local custody to federal immigration officials, and to stop the expansion of immigration detention.

It said he “criticizes Trump when convenient, but ... turns incarcerated Californians who are eligible for release over to ICE instead of their loved ones.”

California already has state laws blocking immigration facilities and limiting law enforcement agencies’ cooperation with immigration officials.

Meanwhile Monday, more than 100 University of California, San Francisco doctors were among 750 people signing a statement delivered to Newsom calling for more prison releases. The move was organized by UCSF’s chapter of White Coats For Black Lives, which said the signers also include nurses and other medical and mental health providers, students and community members.

They and the collective both called for reducing San Quentin’s inmate population by half to slow the spread of the virus.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Condemned San Quentin inmate Johnny Avila Jr., 62, was the latest to die Sunday of suspected complications from the coronavirus. The 19 overall deaths there during the state’s worst prison outbreak ties San Quentin with the California Institution for Men in Southern California, which previously had the most deaths.

Avila was among three men convicted in 1994 of two counts of first-degree murder for the slayings of two young women in 1991. The other two men were sentenced to life prison terms.

He is the latest of 47 inmates to die statewide of suspected virus complications.

More than 1,800 inmates statewide currently have tested positive for the virus, while officials say more than 5,600 have recovered. San Quentin has more than 500 active cases, more than the next two hardest-hit prisons combined.