Adding Fuel to the Fire: Life Without Parole, Our Elders & Covid-19

MARCH 20, 2020

CALIFORNIA–California Coalition for Women Prisoners, Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) and The DROP LWOP Coalition join with public health officials, families of incarcerated people, incarcerated people, and community advocates in demanding that Governor Newsom and the state legislature take immediate action to execute their legal responsibility to protect vulnerable people in prisons, especially older and sick people, including those serving Life Without Parole sentences (LWOP), by commuting their sentences and/or expediting their release.  

To learn more about the inhumanity of Life Without Parole sentences, read the DROP LWOP Campaign Fact Sheet. 

We endorse the demands made by the Justice Collaborative Letter to Governor Newsom, especially those highlighting the impact COVID-19 will have on aging prison populations. However, for far too long, people sentenced to Life Without Parole remain wrongly excluded from considerations of Elder Parole. Our coalition believes we must be bold and more inclusive in our state’s protection of the most vulnerable among us (our incarcerated elders), and the most invisible (those serving LWOP), especially during this time of national crisis.

People serving LWOP must be included in Elder Parole and immediately considered for sentence commutation during this health emergency. 

Between 1992–2017, the population of people serving LWOP in the U.S. grew by 400%. Over 5,200 people are now serving LWOP sentences in California state prisons, one of the largest populations in the country. As the result of extreme sentencing practices like LWOP, our state’s prison population is growing older in facilities that were already public health disasters before the advent of COVID-19, with advocates and the press reporting a wide range of troubling issues plaguing the facilities: refusal to provide emergency medical care by custody and medical staff; incredibly long wait times to have medical needs met; botched surgeries; and extreme medical indifference to people suffering from chronic illnesses. 

Elders in prison are trying to survive this existing medical neglect, in addition to overcrowding and deteriorating conditions of care. They often lack the basic tools for personal hygiene, including regular soap. After decades of advocacy, preventable deaths in California prisons persist at alarming rates. 

People in prison serving Life Without Parole have virtually no way to avoid this new health threat, with the exception of one rare valve of release: a commutation by the Governor. Former Governor Jerry Brown was applauded by criminal justice advocates for the historic commutation of 147 people with LWOP sentences. As of February 2020, Governor Newsom has granted only seven.  The threat of COVID-19 means that Governor Newsom must accelerate LWOP commutations, to meet and surpass that of his predecessor.

Newsom announced that seniors are among the three most vulnerable groups at risk from the novel coronavirus in the state, alongside the unhoused and those with chronic conditions. Protecting the health of elderly people in prison, including those who currently have limited possibility of release, must be immediately prioritized

Many studies have shown that people in prison have statistically higher occurrences of complex medical issues than those in the general population, effectively causing prisoners to age more quickly, creating a disparity between their numerical age and physiological age. Thus, a 50 year old person serving LWOP in a California state prison may have a level of health more comparable to a 70 year old person in the general population. 

Additionally, the increased occurrence of underlying medical issues (and their frequent comorbidity) for people in prisons creates a uniquely vulnerable elder population, especially within the LWOP community, who are often invisibilized. They are likely to experience serious harm if they remain imprisoned during this health crisis. Aging and sick people who are imprisoned are creating unbearable strains on an already inadequate prison healthcare system. 

For our elders and infirmed serving any length of sentence, including LWOP, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, CURB and the DROP LWOP Coalition echo the existing demands of criminal legal experts that call on our representatives to enact vast and sensible decarceration from prisons, jails and detention centers in California, as well as a dramatic investment in community-based systems of care, especially those that center reentry, housing and healthcare. In the interest of California’s public health, we demand: 

  1. The commutation of the sentences of all people serving Life Without Parole (LWOP), allowing them to be considered for release, prioritizing those who are 50 years or older or with underlying medical issues. They are in life-threatening danger from COVID-19.
  2. A commitment from the Governor’s Office and the parole board to immediately review existing individual Elder Parole or LWOP commutation requests, especially those submitted by people in prison who face increased medical danger as a result of the COVID-19 threat. 
  3. Support for public policy as outlined in CURB’s Elder Parole recommendations that identifies the consideration of release for elderly prisoners (defined as age 50+) as necessary to decarcerate meaningfully, and also advocates for the legal expansion of Elder Parole to include release opportunities for people serving LWOP. While this should already be the case, it is now imperative with the advent of COVID-19. 
  4. Complete transparency from CDCR regarding their policies on preventing the spread of COVID-19, as well as immediately providing the basic necessities for people in prison to be proactive in their own care, at no cost to incarcerated people and their families, including but not limited to: soap, warm water, and bleach (or approved cleaning solution that meets with the CDC’s standard of effectiveness against the virus). 

The recidivism rate for people released from a life sentence is 0.5%, the lowest among all people who are paroled. There is every reason to expect the same success from elders leaving prison, as well as people from the LWOP community. It is well documented that people both “age out” of crime and become significantly more expensive to incarcerate as they grow older and their medical needs increase. The costs of incarcerating people over age 50 are exorbitant. Releasing aging people, including people serving LWOP, who have significant health problems creates virtually no risk to public safety. 

Incarcerated elders are at the greatest risk for COVID-19, yet pose the least risk to our communities. There is a moral, fiscal and public health imperative to release the incarcerated elder population, including people serving LWOP, who–against the threat of  COVID-19–face de facto death sentences. 

Here is a link to the Prison Policy Institute report, which names releasing medically fragile and older adults as an immediate, #1 priority. The Justice Collaborative has collected a great list of criminal legal resources for the COVID-19 pandemic. Please read the press release and quotes gathered by Releasing Aging People in Prison from public health professionals, attorneys and advocates in support of elder release. 

In Community, 

California Coalition for Women Prisoners

Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) 

The DROP LWOP Coalition