COVID-19 in California prisons: Who gets to go home early?

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Paul Alleyne at his mother’s house in Los Angeles after his release from prison. Photo by Lucy Copp.

Early in the morning on July 21, Paul Alleyne was told to pack up his cell. After 24 years of incarceration, he was being released from prison. Alleyne hopped into a van that sped over the San Rafael bridge, San Quentin growing smaller in the rearview mirror. Alleyne looked out the window for the entire five hour drive down to Los Angeles where he would spend two weeks in a Travelodge under mandatory quarantine.

Alleyne’s release from prison came at a time when the state was releasing thousands of incarcerated people to mitigate the outbreaks of COVID-19 that were jumping like embers from one facility to the next. 

In May, San Quentin prison had virtually no cases of COVID-19. But changed overnight when 121 men were transferred from a hotspot prison in Chino to San Quentin. Transfers were common but never this fatal. Within days, San Quentin prison became the site of the worst COVID outbreak in the state. 

Alleyne remembers the worst days of the outbreak, when correctional officers were calling out sick and afraid for their own lives, basic things like showers and medications were being neglected, and echoes of people calling “man down” reverberated throughout the 780-man building, sometimes two to three times a day. 

Between March and July, the state released 3,500 incarcerated people in  response to the pandemic. The outbreak at San Quentin prompted them to consider another 8,000 for early release. But who qualified for early release from prison under new pandemic rules? Turns out, it was not someone like Alleyne.

Alleyne was serving a life-sentence for conspiracy to commit murder, attempted murder, and robbery. His sentence was 24 years to life for a violent crime. Under the state’s first sweep of early releases, someone had to only have 60 days left on their sentence for a non-violent crime. The state extended this to 180 days and then 365 days. But in all cases, the crime had to be non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual. Alleyne did not qualify. But should he have?

In November 2019, Alleyne had his first parole board hearing. The commissioners deemed him no longer a threat to society and found him suitable for parole. But the pandemic hit in March, Alleyne was still incarcerated and he didn’t fall under the qualifications for early release like thousands of others. 

Sam Lewis is the director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, an organization providing reentry services for formerly incarcerated people in the Los Angeles area. He says that just because someone committed a violent act does not mean they are a violent offender. There are statistics to back this up too. People who parole after serving life-sentences have a less than 1% recidivism rate, making them the safest population of people to parole back to society.  

“The reason they are overlooked is because of the violent offense they committed,” Lewis says. But he also says that after 15 or 20 years of incarceration, most of these people grow out of crime. 

“Lifers usually know themselves better than any of us out here will ever know ourselves. They have had to look at their lives in a really deep manner.” Vanessa Nelson-Sloane is the director of Lifer Support Alliance. She explains that those with life-sentences must earn their freedom in front of the parole board and one cannot earn their freedom without expressing genuine remorse for their crime and taking full responsibility. This is part of the reason the recidivism rate for lifers is so low. But the idea of releasing violent offenders is triggering for many people, especially victims and survivors of violent crime. 

Patricia Wenskunas runs the Crime Survivors Resource Center. She says many crime survivors have contacted her recently because they’ve received notice that the person that harmed them is getting an early release. “They’re triggered, traumatized, they’re having night terrors.” 

For the past decade, lifers have been released from prison at an increasing rate. New laws and a shift towards rehabilitative programs have opened the door for many people serving life-sentences who, for decades prior, never believed they would step foot outside of prison again. 

Nelson-Sloane from Lifer Support Alliance understands the complicated feelings around their release. She considers herself a survivor of a relatively violent crime and knows how something like that imprints you forever. “But we have to follow the law,” she says.

In 2008, a California Supreme Court case ruled that unless the parole board could provide “some evidence” to show that someone was still a threat to society, that person should be found suitable and receive a date to go home. Alleyne committed a violent crime decades earlier but no longer posed a threat to society. He was lucky to have already been found suitable when the pandemic hit. 

As the state struggles to contain COVID inside prisons, Alleyne and other lifers hope the state will look beyond the most politically palatable releases of non-violent offenders and consider those serving life-sentences too.