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As COVID Deaths Mount, Prison Wives Are Fighting to Save the Men They Love

With the penal system as callous as ever and coronavirus ravaging California prisons, they fear they’re the only thing standing between life and death for their husbands

It didn’t take long for the prison guards at the west entrance of San Quentin State Prison to alert HQ to the arrival of a restless crowd, ready to shout, drum and rally for hours. They came armed with signs bellowing “Incarcerated Lives Matter,” “Let Them Go!” and “No Execution By COVID-19.” Waiting to greet them was the loud clink of a sliding chain-link gate, a stretch of old barbed wire, and soon, a line of correctional officers perched shoulder-to-shoulder along the perimeter, staring back blankly at the agitated mass. 

San Quentin sits on a hill along San Francisco Bay, with a view so picturesque that it’s surreal to realize that hundreds of men have been hanged, gassed and poisoned to death there. Countless others have perished by the hands of guards or peers, both within its aging halls and out on the yard, under blazing blue skies. But there has never been a kill streak quite like that unfolding now, with 25 inmates dead from COVID along with one correctional officer. It remains unclear how the outbreak, which has infected more than 2,200 inmates, will be slowed and ultimately stopped. 

So, on August 2nd, a coalition of local activists met at the harbor just west of the vast prison grounds, determined to grab the attention of San Quentin officials and local news. A crowd of several hundred marched up the hill, tailed by an aging red pickup equipped with a PA system. And as the truck parted masked bodies and rumbled to a stop, Renée Benavidez waited at the head of the pack, rehearsing her talking points silently. As a lead organizer of the event, she had time on the mic to list the sins committed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the third-largest law enforcement agency in the country. And in her eyes, there were many to list. 

Photos by Eddie Kim

Though San Quentin is just one facility, it serves as a diorama of how early mistakes made by prisons and jails across the U.S. became nails in the metaphoric and literal coffin. In the spring, administrators there waved away additional testing resources and health advice, then approved a transfer of inmates from a facility plagued by COVID, claiming that the 121 men had tested negative. They were wrong — and an investigation found that several inmates had been visibly sick on the bus ride north, calling into question whether staff was ignorant or outright callous about the situation. 

These and other fatal mistakes have proven that the prison system doesn’t care about preventing “executions by COVID,” Benavidez told the buzzing crowd. “That’s why we need to be in every board meeting in every county and city, because we need to stop being on the outside and get on the inside to make real change, so that they have to listen to us!” she yelled into the mic, rousing whoops and cheers. 

More than 100,000 people in prison have contracted COVID so far, accounting for an infection rate five times that of the general public. COVID deaths, too, are more common in prison by a factor of three. That illness and uncertainty across U.S. prisons in 2020 has inspired new advocates for the end of mass incarceration, spoken with the vocabulary of abolition. And on the front lines of protest, women like Benavidez are finding a renewed sense of purpose. 

She isn’t a seasoned organizer, nor a longtime activist, but the pandemic has forced her into a panicky crash course on all elements of prison injustice and administration. Losing her job at a contractor company earlier this year gave her more time to fret over her husband’s day-to-day life at California Correctional Institution, an hour’s drive away from her home in the mellow suburb of Palmdale. They met two years ago, when a friend of Benavidez asked her to write, as a pen pal, to a friend of her own husband. Having worked in a prison in the past, Benavidez was immediately sympathetic to how lonely and difficult life behind bars could be. 

“So I said, ‘Sure.’ The letters started out with us talking about our kids and how much we love our kids. It was just amazing, immediately. Something about writing is so different from texting or being on the phone, because you’re almost in a position to bare your soul,” she tells me. “You’re not as worried because it’s going down on paper, and so, the more we talked, we just kept finding these common connections about what’s important in life.” 

Her husband, Jason, is 34 and serving the 15th year of a 25-year sentence. It was the result of an attempted murder conviction that Benavidez says stems from his retaliation against a man who assaulted his ex. Crucially, the attempted murder accounts for just nine of the 25 years — the remainder is for possessing a gun and having a prior offense, she says. 

Starting in April, his phone calls and letters carried home worse and worse news. Thanks to COVID fears, hot meals were out, and nearly inedible cold boxed lunches were in. Busted toilets backed up, but were left unfixed because of “staffing problems.” She heard stories about guards not caring about wearing masks and endless calls of “man down,” indicating another sick inmate had collapsed. In-person visits, meanwhile, disappeared. Even mail and phone calls were being cut, which inmates couldn’t understand the logic behind it. “I could feel his hope being taken away. Jason didn’t sound like the same man,” she says. 

By the end of June, with COVID numbers spiraling up, she was stumbling toward her breaking point. “You’re trying to make sure your loved one is safe. We’re reaching out to prisons, saying, ‘Look, we will donate whatever you need to help these men.’ But they wanted nothing to do with us,” Benavidez continues. “So it became this frustration: ‘What are you doing? Why can’t you tell us what the prison’s plan is?’ We’re still fighting that. I’ve still not heard from my warden, or the public information officer. I only get two-sentence replies from the Inmate Family Council, which I email every single day.” 

Driven to a moment of angry clarity, Benavidez and two friends (also with incarcerated family) hatched a plan to protest at the state capitol in Sacramento on July 16th. They named the fledgling action “We Are Their Voices,” and created a Facebook page linking to the protest details. Within a day, the group logged 600 new followers. And on protest day, Benavidez was shocked to tears when she realized a crowd big enough to block the street had shown up in support. 

Dawn “Marie,” who requested to use a pseudonymous last name, met Benavidez that day in Sacramento. Inspired to do more, and having been laid off from her job at a law firm, she volunteered to be one of five administrators that lead We Are Their Voices today. The group and its supporters have protested at more than a dozen different facilities across California, with the core leadership reaching out to local wives, mothers, sisters and daughters to plan actions for their loved ones. Many are speaking out, literally, for the first time; Marie chuckles as she admits to me that she’s somewhat of an introvert — “shy and quiet, to be honest,” she says. 

But standing in front of the group at San Quentin, I watched her transform into a magnetic speaker, telling her husband’s story and calling out CDCR head Ralph Diaz. Near the end of her remarks, she turned toward the fence and implored the expressionless officers watching to speak out on abuses. “Look around, COs! How many of you will be lost before you’ll say something?” she roared, jabbing her finger in the air. “Your job is not worth that much!” 

Her anger rises easily because she’s scared, disconnected from people she loves, without any trust that someone is looking out for them. Because of COVID policies on phone access, regular calls with her husband have dried up. It’s unclear whether he’s receiving Marie’s packages with his favorite foods, or whether he’s stuck in medical isolation. “We need more oversight on what’s happening inside. And in the big picture, it’s become so clear, to so many, that we need to do away with mass incarceration,” she adds. “This has been going on for too long.” 

It’s been six months since both Marie and Benavidez got to see their loved ones in person. Meanwhile, the outbreak in California prisons continues to worsen. “It feels like I’ll never see him again, honestly,” Benavidez observes quietly. 

Photo by Eddie Kim

* * * * *

For months, Tasha Williams thought things were going differently at Correctional Training Facility (CTF), a prison for men located on the outskirts of the farming city of Soledad, California. It was a rare example of a site that had completely avoided transmission, and she had optimism that her husband, Talib Williams, could dodge COVID altogether for the remainder of the year. 

It all unraveled at 3 a.m. on July 20th, when a mass of armed COs swarmed the cells of dozens upon dozens of inmates. They grabbed men from their beds, tossing them into the halls and down to the chow hall, where the inmates huddled while listening to their rooms being stripped down. 

CDCR maintains that this was a routine investigation due to evidence of prison gang activity, but in Talib’s eyes, the raid unfairly targeted (by his count) 200 Black men and put their lives in danger. Williams could hear the fear and adrenaline still coursing through her husband when he called a day later to sum up what happened. 

As a teen, Talib was sentenced to 50 years in prison for shooting and killing another young man, whom he believed was targeting him in a case of mistaken identity. But at CTF, Talib Williams was best known as a peacemaker and jailhouse revolutionary — a convert to Islam who preached on the evils of toxic masculinity and quoted the powerful Black activist George Jackson. Now, Talib and Williams wondered whether the justification for the raid wasn’t the threat of gang violence, but revolutionary thinking and criticism of correctional officers.

Talib claims that guards stole books written by Black revolutionaries, phone contact lists, mail and legal documents. What is for certain is that CTF staff discovered three positive cases of COVID immediately after the raid. Positive cases have since exploded in number, with 69 total cases, a staggering 57 of which have been found in the last 14 days. CDCR later admitted that the raid employed officers from outside the CTF system, whom Williams suggests may have introduced the virus into the prison. It’s also possible the infection spread from cell to cell during the nighttime operation, as inmates weren’t allowed to grab their masks and couldn’t maintain social distancing while being rounded up. 

The raid left Williams with a lingering sense of dread, and her voice tightens as she questions why prison leaders would choose to endanger so many lives. “The men were also questioned about their affiliations to Black Lives Matter, which isn’t a gang, so why would they even ask? It makes you wonder,” she says. “It just inspired me to get involved in protesting, because my husband isn’t used to being brutalized by guards. He’s a model prisoner. The worst he’s done is have a contraband cell phone, and he used them to write and publish his books.” 

In a sense, Talib got off lucky — he didn’t need medical treatment for injuries sustained during the July 20th raid, unlike some of the other men he says he witnessed. But the infection kicked off a prison-wide quarantine, which has made everyone’s life there more challenging, Williams says. No rec room time, showers every three days, the stoppage of educational and rehab programs, delayed communications. There is widespread fear of reprisal if wrongdoing is reported, Williams says, compounded by the initial treatment of the men targeted in the raid. 

The incident and the lingering questions pushed her to start a nascent page named “We Bring Change” and organize protest actions at Soledad. In advocating alongside her husband and other activists within the CTF walls, Williams is demanding more transparency for the raid, as well as public transparency on the grievances filed by prisoners (also known as “602s”). “We want them to stop all cell extractions during the pandemic, too,” she says. “It’s what caused all this.” 

Talib and Tasha Williams. Photo provided by Tasha Williams.

Similar stories from across the country’s prisons have left people fearful of how to best protect their health — and doubtful that a prison’s declared policies can help them. Kenya Hunter realized something must have gone wrong when her husband Jermain didn’t call on Monday morning as usual. Five long days passed before the familiar 415 number from San Quentin popped up on her cell phone. She could only exhale with relief, but the first words out of his mouth scared her: “Baby, I’ve been in the hole.” 

Jermain was convicted of attempted murder in 2003, after a family dispute over his mother that turned violent and ended with an accidental gunshot. The 42-year-old has been in prison since, counting down the years on a 34-years-to-life sentence, hoping to shorten it through good behavior and prison programs. For him to end up in solitary confinement made no sense — but by Jermain’s telling, all it took was for one man to report feeling sick. 

When Jermain returned to his cell from lunch on June 29th, his roommate was gone. A few hours later, officers rolled in and told him to pack up his belongings. Under the CDCR’s medical policy, a person with a suspected positive case can still be put in isolation. Even still, Jermain wasn’t given the opportunity to pick out any items to keep him company in the tiny cell. Instead, he was handed a thin sheet and no details on when exactly he would get out. 

Five days later, he emerged from solitary in a daze, with nothing but more trouble to deal with. “When he came back, he found a bunch of his stuff, his headphones and little e-battery and other small items, they had been stolen. The COs don’t want to pack your stuff up, so they have inmates do it, and they take what they want,” Hunter says, her voice betraying exasperation. 

In hindsight, Hunter believes her husband did contract a mild case of COVID from his cellmate. But Jermain’s experience in solitary was more punishment than health care, and the incident revealed to her why so many inmates avoid testing or declaring any early symptoms (underreporting of COVID inside prisons remains rampant). Hunter says there’s no rhyme or reason communicated to inmates about why they’re being tested. At the same time, inmates are anxious that upsetting the wrong correctional officer or inmate could lead to them being thrown in solitary under the guise of public safety. 

Kenya Hunter. Photo by Eddie Kim.

All of these issues spurred Hunter to start attending protests and speaking out in her personal life. On the day I met her outside of San Quentin, she was wearing a custom T-shirt with a photo of her and Jermain taken during a visit at the prison, both beaming with smiles. She’s wearing a striped dress, with streaks of cherry red in her hair; Jermain’s flashing a handsome grin, and the collar of his shirt pokes out neatly from under a navy sweater. “I’M HIS VOICE,” the shirt declares. “FREE MY HUSBAND.” 

Things don’t appear to be getting much better for him. In a letter dated August 13th, Jermain notes how the prison’s design makes it difficult to feel, or be, safe from COVID. A major concern is how the open structure of the bars on the front of each cell allows for air to circulate unimpeded between adjacent units, he says. Another is that there’s no way to better protect yourself from the person you’re sharing a 12-by-4 foot cell with. “If I try to put my own preventative plastic or cardboard up, it violates the prison’s policy of security, to be able to see within the back of the cell,” he writes. 

Prisons like San Quentin and Folsom State Prison are late 1800s-era facilities intended to hold less than half their current populations, and it’s indicative of how overcrowding remains a challenge across the U.S. penal system. Jermain says quarantine showers only take place two to three times a week, with “groups of about 50 inmates” waiting for their turn under one of 16 showerheads. After that, it’s back into the cell for days straight. “There is no possible way for an inmate to social distance oneself. The building is 800-plus inmates breathing the same recycled air,” he concludes. “Every day from morning till late night I hear inmates yelling ‘man down’.”

Hunter, Benavidez, Marie, Williams and other women I spoke to who asked to remain anonymous (out of fear of retaliation against their incarcerated family members) didn’t enter into their relationships with an appetite for social justice. Seeing the conditions of their loved ones’ imprisonment has simply, over time, made them all amateur experts on prison paperwork, punishments and violence. The Facebook page for We Are Their Voices is as much a network for assistance on prison bureaucracy as it is a protest hub, with women frequently discussing paperwork, COVID test results and release qualifications. In a recent post, one person describes how her husband was showing symptoms but tested negative for COVID, was sent back to his dorm room and then promptly tested positive days later. “Again, no quarantine. This is how the virus is spreading at CCI,” she writes. 

One common frustration for these women is the byzantine way that individual prisons release (or more often, don’t release) information about their loved ones. There’s mass confusion on which inmates are most vulnerable, how infection is spreading and how someone can qualify for early medical release — and it’s a problem families are encountering all across America. While the CDCR, for example, has a comprehensive page detailing its COVID policies and guidelines, the women I spoke with say what they’re hearing from the inside doesn’t square with official statements. Many don’t know why their loved ones are being selected for “surveillance testing,” and whether it’s a signal that their risk of illness is increasing somehow. 

(In a statement to MEL, a CDCR spokesman only noted that “priority will be given to asymptomatic individuals who have been identified as vulnerable or high-risk for complications of COVID-19. Such testing will give CDCR and CCHCS a baseline of cases as a preventive measure and for data-gathering purposes, as we work toward safely resuming operations.”)

While the COVID outbreak is unprecedented, it’s hardly the first time that a mysterious virus has infected and killed prisoners. Minister King-X (born William E. Brown) served 18 years in California prisons, and was finally released last summer. While inside, he took part in the groundbreaking hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013, founded a peacemaking organization dubbed KAGE (Kings and Queens Against Genocidal Environments) and is today a co-director of the nonprofit California Prison Focus. Trying to organize his peers at the notorious supermax Pelican Bay State Prison proved to him that the correctional system creates environments in which inmates are confused, angry and constantly battling for their own sliver of the metaphoric pie. The COVID crisis has only heightened that chaos, King-X tells me, and he connects the pandemic of 2020 to a lesser-known viral infection that has been haunting California inmates for a decade: Valley fever

Valley fever is a mysterious but documented illness related to contaminated soil in and around a number of California prisons, and like COVID, some cases evolve from a minor respiratory crisis into a debilitating illness that requires long-term medical care. Dozens of inmates have died in the last decade. King-X argues that the missteps and lack of action then is indicative of why the response to the current pandemic is so flawed today. 

“When the pandemic hit, I started talking to people in San Quentin, Pelican Bay, Folsom and beyond. What I heard in these interviews is that not only are people coming down with COVID, many people have been sick for months,” he says. “I think of the air vents, because when I was incarcerated, I remember how nasty they were, everywhere. So were people getting ill before the news, already, and nobody is sayin’ nothing? Is CDCR being unsanitary the problem?”

He says many inmates now avoid the cold meals given in the chow hall and spend money on commissary food instead, hoping to avoid guards that “walk around with no masks on, breathing over their food.” Like Benavidez, Williams and others, King-X notes that that retaliation for reporting COVID errors is a reality, largely because of the ease with which you can be reported as a potential case. (In their statement, a CDCR spokesman says that grievance forms for COVID problems are available throughout facilities and can be submitted anonymously.) And based on his experience being inside, King-X remains gravely concerned with how at-risk inmates, such as the elderly, are paired in minuscule cells with younger, healthier people who could be asymptomatic carriers. It’s especially problematic when people are isolated in solitary for COVID, then released and paired with a new cellmate that was transferred from another facility, he says. 

“I see a lot of negligence, and I do believe it’s deliberate. The indifference is implicit when you have people sleeping in a gym, unable to social distance because they’re laying on top of each other in a pandemic,” King-X says. “How could that ever be safe?” 

Photo by Eddie Kim

* * * * *

Just days before Williams’ first major protest, two wildfires bloomed within viewing distance of her husband’s prison. By the morning of August 21st, more than 10,000 acres of dry forests and hills were alight. Twenty-foot flames spewed beige smoke into the sky, feeding a billowing bank of ash that floated toward the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad. The men inside had no choice but to cough through the nights with little more than old air filters and N95 masks to stave off the smoke. 

It was the worst possible twist, at the worst possible time — a fire that would force people into even smaller enclosed spaces within the prison, coughing next to each other through multiple days and nights. The situation is repeating itself around California, most notably Vacaville, where smoke and ash have enveloped Solano State Prison and a facility that holds terminally ill and medically vulnerable inmates. “I waited as long as I could, but there was no way to protest safely, even if it’s needed. It’s horrible to think about what it’s like for Talib,” Williams told me on the day of her planned action. 

Having to cancel was just one stumble in a long marathon, and Williams forged ahead by hosting a webinar to shine light on the July 20th raid at her husband’s prison. Benavidez and the women of We Are Their Voices, too, were out en masse over the weekend, hitting protests in Tehachapi (where her husband resides) and at the California Rehabilitation Center, where 102 positive cases have appeared in the last two weeks. 

The demands from these women differ, often depending on the conditions their loved ones are seeing. Some call for better testing and mass releases of senior citizens, who are inherently at greater risk of COVID death. Others want immediate improvements to food quality and sanitation practices. Everyone demands more transparency of what’s happening on a day-to-day basis inside the walls. “Everything has to be dismantled,” Benavidez says. “Why don’t COs have body cams? There’s no protection from those officers in there. Out in the world, people can pull out a cell phone and record and put it on social media. In there, we need more accountability from every level.”

A message shared with members of the We Are Their Voices Facebook page

The primary goal, as it has always been, is to free their loved ones while they’re still alive and healthy. Many pointed out to me that the men in their lives have already served long sentences for the main crimes they were convicted of, but remain imprisoned solely because of mandatory sentence enhancements. Dawn Marie’s husband was caught while burglarizing a vehicle for its speakers, but his sentence was extended because he had two prior offenses. Despite the original felony now being considered a misdemeanor under new California law, his appeal for release was recently rejected. “He’s 52 years old, in for a nonviolent offense and he’s a ‘threat to society’? And has to stay in a COVID-infested prison?” Marie says. “What is wrong with this system?”

Like Benavidez’ husband Jason, Jermain Hunter was sentenced to nine years for attempted murder, but remains in prison after 18 years because of a mandatory sentence enhancement of 25 years to life for firing a gun. The judicial measure was banned in 2017, and Kenya Hunter is incredulous as to why Jermain doesn’t qualify for release given that reality: “They admitted the enhancement was unfair,” she says.

Considering how mass incarceration continues to be a drain on taxpayers and a danger in a pandemic, lawyer and policing expert Jody David Armour says he is disturbed that states haven’t moved faster to adapt and protect the incarcerated and their families. Even the most obvious reforms, like freeing older inmates who are far less likely to reoffend, haven’t happened in a meaningful way, he says. “In fact, it’s stunning how much this pandemic is ravaging our jails and prisons and yet how little empathy, sympathy, care and concern those victims behind bars are receiving from the general public,” he tells me. 

In a crowded system like California’s, social-distancing guidelines can only be met in earnest if more prisoners are released quickly. Yet historically, proposals to reduce incarceration in a sweeping manner have been met with criticism; even approved policies to hasten releases of nonviolent inmates have been mangled by the state in recent years. There is a human cost to this inaction, and Armour observes that in 2020, more and more inmates are facing a catch-22: Is reporting their illness even worth it, when the “treatment” ends up being a stint in solitary with a blanket and a few doses of Tylenol?

“You’re in a six-by-nine cell with another body, not getting out for extended periods of time. In solitary, it’s even more dehumanizing, impersonal and soul crushing — and it’s meant to be. Now, in order to address potentially lethal conditions in a pandemic, you can be subjected to the equivalent of torture for long periods of time,” Armour says. “You’re telling these people to pick their poison. Pick torture, or potentially another kind of slow death. That’s not justice.”

Armour notes that some courts are starting to consider arguments that such conditions in prison constitute cruel and unusual punishment, but momentum is slow on state and federal policy changes. That’s why so many women believe they need to be on the front lines of protest — because their views as mothers, daughters, sisters and wives can generate public empathy. And it’s why Benavidez, Marie and dozens of other women gathered at Central California Women’s Facility in the tiny town of Chowchilla on August 22nd, inhaling sooty air, ringing bells and chanting in the dusky, fire-stained light: “Let them go!” “Abolish prisons!” “Stop beating our women!” 

They’ll do it again, at “every prison in California,” until the movement outgrows the state and goes national, Benavidez says. And while the women I spoke to (except for Tasha Williams) aren’t yet calling themselves prison abolitionists, all of them are crying for systematic change, from policing in schools all the way to how death-row inmates are treated. The consequence for not protesting is clear, she says. 

“My husband was on the phone with me, and he just whispers, ‘Damn, there are three boxes by the police desk,’” Benavidez tells me. “What does he mean by ‘three boxes’? He says it’s what they call the makeshift coffins for the dead. So what’s it do to your mind to wonder, ‘Can I be next?’ To be standing there talking to your wife, and you’re looking down at makeshift coffins?”

The fear is the same on the other end of the line for the loved ones of incarcerated men and women. The feeling pushes them to grind through the exhaustion of organizing and protesting, week after week, for the most important thing in their life. “They call me, to this day, and say, ‘Dawn, don’t forget about me,’” Marie says. “How could I?”