January was the first time Maria Moore saw her husband’s face in 10 months.

Moore’s husband Michael is currently serving two life sentences for double murder at California Men’s Colony (CMC), a state correctional facility in San Luis Obispo County. When the pandemic hit, she could not call or visit him and her letters frequently got lost in the mail.

Additionally, maskless Men’s Colony staff and a low number of vaccinations among them transmitted COVID-19 to inmates for months like “a wildfire,” according to Maria Moore.

Despite making up less than 3% of prisoners in California, the Men’s Colony has accounted for one in 20 COVID-19 cases in California prisons.

The Men’s Colony reported 2,460 cumulative inmate COVID-19 cases and 13 COVID-19 related deaths among incarcerated people, placing the prison fourth in cumulative cases and seventh in most deaths among all the state’s prisons, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). There have also been 689 staff cases. About 80% of incarcerated people at the Men’s Colony are fully vaccinated.

However, during the pandemic, the prison also reduced their population.

According to Men’s Colony Public Information Officer Lieutenant John Hill, the prison’s population decreased from 3,828 in March 2020 to 3,065 in September 2021.

“This is the result of natural releases (those who have served their full sentence as defined by law), expedited releases that occurred between July 2020 and July 2021, and the temporary suspension of county jail intake off and on throughout the pandemic based on public health guidance,” Hill wrote in an email to Mustang News.

The prison also released 21 incarcerated people due to active COVID-19 cases and has only one active case among incarcerated individuals and six staff cases as of Nov. 30.

“The approximate 19.8% decrease in CMC’s incarcerated population is clearly reflective of the unprecedented response initiated by CDCR in an attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within CMC,” Hill said.

In April 2020 the CDCR “expedited the release of almost 3,500 incarcerated persons serving a sentence for non-violent offenses, who do not have to register as a sex offender, and who had 60 days or less to serve,” according to their website. In July, they sped up releases for incarcerated individuals with 180 days or less to serve.

Cal Poly sociology professor Ryan Alaniz commented about this policy and said that the people who were released are unlikely to commit other crimes.

“To protect people from a deadly disease, my understanding is that they allowed some nonviolent offenders to be on parole,” Alaniz said. “It’s not like they’re free forever and don’t have to check in with the courts — they just are able to be on parole.”

Michael Moore has been incarcerated since 1995 and Maria Moore has known him since 2008. She lives in Los Angeles County and would drive more than three hours every weekend for the past three years to visit her husband at the Men’s Colony from 8:30 a.m. until 3 p.m.

“For a long time, phone calls weren’t allowed,” Maria Moore said. “The mail was just terrible … I would get letters about a month and a half after he wrote them.”

Video visits for family members started in November but were still hard to obtain — it took two months for Maria Moore to schedule one with her husband.

The Men’s Colony is split into two wings — the East Wing, which houses single inmate cells, and the West Wing, which has more communal living spaces with about 60 people sharing a space. Michael Moore lives in the East Wing.

“It became very scary because they’re in complete, complete isolation,” Maria Moore said. “I can’t imagine what that must have felt like.”

The Vera Institute, an organization devoted to criminal justice reform, described what they believe to be the root of high COVID case levels in prisons: “correctional facilities create unique risks for disease transmission.”

Alaniz said the staff in prisons was one reason why COVID-19 rates were so high.

“COVID-19 happened and a lot of people got sick because the vaccine wasn’t passed around,” Alaniz said. “It was correctional officers that brought COVID-19 into prisons because they didn’t believe in the vaccine and put a lot of people in these really small spaces at huge risk.”

Only 63% of the Men’s Colony staff are vaccinated compared to 80% of the incarcerated population, according to CDCR data. Additionally, on Nov. 27, a federal appeals court blocked a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for California prison workers. 

“With staff bringing it in unknowingly, that created a wildfire,” Maria Moore said. “It was a petri dish in prisons.”

However, when community members held a rally in August protesting for stricter COVID-19 guidelines among prison staff, things changed.

“Afterwards, CMC did such a good job of quarantining people,” Maria Moore said.

Since in-person visiting opened up in January, the prison hasn’t had more than three positive cases at once. If a CDCR prison reaches over three, it would revert back to Phase One lockdown, which entails “complete quarantine, back to video visits only, no in-person visits,” according to Maria Moore. 

She also said that the prison tests unvaccinated people before and after visits and moves anyone from the West Wing who tests positive into a quarantine building in the East Wing.

While he opposes abolishing prisons, Alaniz said that the way they treat humans must be reformed and that prisons fail to prevent formerly incarcerated people from re-offending. Re-offending rates, which is known as recidivism, are around 83% over nine years according to the FBI.

“Many of the justifications we have for the criminal justice system have very little and shaky evidence to support them,” Alaniz said. “Rehabilitation is not really happening in prisons.”

He said that it’s impossible to say whether the pandemic has been beneficial in changing the functionings of prisons in terms of people being let out early.

“We’re still in COVID, and there has not been any drastic change, from my understanding,” Alaniz said. “I have not seen any policies come through that have changed.”

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