In the southern part of California’s Central Valley, about halfway between Bakersfield and Fresno, sits Corcoran, California—a small farming town surrounded on all sides by acres of cotton and tomato fields.
Perched at the town’s southern tip are two of the state’s largest prisons. Together, their denizens make up about 33% of the population of Corcoran. One of the facilities, the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (CSATF), is the state’s single largest, housing 4,481 prisoners, about 130% of its intended capacity.
At the end of October, in the midst of a rapidly spreading COVID-19 epidemic at the facility, a small group of prisoners in D yard have announced a work stoppage and hunger strike in protest of what they consider to be institution’s “failure to protect” them from the spread of a virus from which they have no means to protect themselves.
“I have lost all hope in humanity because of how California and CDCR [California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation] has Failed to Protect individuals like myself,” wrote David S. Cauthen, Jr., 32, a prisoner at CSATF who says he is currently on day 14 of his hunger strike.
In an email to Perilous, Cauthen explained that the purpose of the protest is to draw attention to the spread of COVID-19 at the facility and to protest staff misconduct.
“The primary goal is to set a constitutional standard on CDCR and all of its officers, staff members and medical personnel,” Cauthen wrote. “California and CDCR cannot expect inmates to follow the law as it relates to correctional officers giving orders, while all the while officers are breaking the rules that say CDCR must protect prisoners against any harm to life of themselves.”
The Corcoran treatment facility is home to the California prison system’s largest active COVID-19 outbreak, with 502 active cases and counting. On Wednesday, the number of positive cases at the facility jumped by almost a hundred in a single day. Of the total number of COVID-19 cases at the facility, 482 have been diagnosed in the last 14 days, according to statistics maintained by the California Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (CDCR).
There is reason to fear that the true magnitude of the prison’s outbreak is not reflected in these statistics. Estimates of false negatives produced by PCR testing range from 20%-67%, depending on the stage of illness at which patients are tested. In one study, researchers called the rates of false negatives they found “shockingly high.” Given this reality, it is statistically likely that at least 764, or 20%, of the 3,823 prisoners at CSATF tested in the last 14 days were given false negatives. If so, it’s likely that at least 28% of prisoners at the facility are currently infected with COVID-19 and the true number could be much higher.
Late last week, the strikers released their list of demands through the prisoner support group Oakland Abolition and Solidarity. Their demands include:
- Universal and voluntary testing available to everyone in the facility with results provided immediately.
- Restore safe programing and basic necessities namely law library, access to telephones, showers, dormitory cleaning supplies, hot meals, and canteen.
- Create mechanisms of accountability by which independent family and supporters on the outside have visibility on CDCR’s plans and actions during and after an outbreak like this.
According to Cauthen, officials at CSATF have visited the strikers in order to resolve their demands but have refused to officially recognize the strike. Officials at CDCR did not promptly respond to requests for comment.
As the strike enters its third week, the safety and health of the strikers may be in jeopardy in the absence of serious efforts toward resolution on the part of prison staff. “The hunger strike will last until we notice our physical health taking a turn for the worse,” Cauthen wrote. “But even once we do begin eating, our work strike will continue and members will fail to perform work for corrections.”
Linda Osby, Cauthen’s mother, receives only sporadic updates on the hunger strike from her home in Texas. While she appreciates that Cauthen is doing something to improve conditions at the prison for everyone, she views the hunger strike with some trepidation. “He’s been in there 18 years,” said Osby, “I’m just ready to have him home.” She’s nervous to see her son taking these risks, but she is also praying for him. In the end, she has faith that he will get through it: “God has him covered in everything he does.”