Freed, then locked in: leaving a California prison amid a pandemic

Abené Clayton in Oakland
·17-min read

When William Blackwell walked out of the gates of San Quentin state prison in mid-July, he had his priorities ironed out: see his family, get a new ID card, search for a job. But first, officials had told him, he’d have to quarantine and test negative for coronavirus twice.

So instead of greeting his family outside the prison’s iron enclosure, Blackwell, 58, climbed into the backseat of a prison van headed to a motel in Gardena, California.

For the first time in more than two decades, he stepped into the van shackle-free, his hands, waist and ankles unbound. Through the bars on the windows, he saw a landscape he hadn’t seen in over two decades. With just a bottle of water to sustain him for this six-hour journey from the Bay Area down south, he sat thinking about the friends he had to leave behind and picturing what may lay ahead.

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“I was reflecting on my life, thinking about my next move and how I need to be accountable to my family,” Blackwell said. “I was coming home as a new person.”

At the motel, Blackwell said, the officers gave him two phone numbers: one to use to get meals delivered to his room and the other in case of emergency. When he dialed the emergency line to see who would be on the other end, Blackwell said, all he got was an automated message.

He was on his own with no one to report to, no idea where he would be living once his days in isolation were done and no instructions on how to get the coronavirus tests he needed to put his post-release plans in motion.

“CDCR dropped us off at the hotel and said ‘bye,’” Blackwell said, referring to California’s Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. “When I called parole, they had no clue what to do with me, they had no idea where I would get tested or who would do it.”

So, Blackwell spent his days watching television and learning how to use the cellphone his nephew bought him. On day five of his stay, his daughter and six-year-old granddaughter came to see him. He’d never met the little girl. He waved through the motel window as his family stood smiling in the parking lot.

•••

Blackwell is one of thousands of Californians released early from prison amid the coronavirus crisis. Covid-19 tore through California’s detention facilities, spreading like wildfire through overcrowded wards, hopping from institution to institution via ill-advised prison transports. At least 70 prisoners in the state have succumbed to the virus since mid-March, and more than 15,300 were infected.

Amid huge pressure from activists and families, the California governor and CDCR in April announced measures to enable the early release of 3,500 people. In July, it promised another round of early releases that would see 8,000 people freed. Court records show that almost 6,000 prisoners have been released early since July. Still, the measures affected just a sliver of the more than 97,000 prisoners in the state system.

Even before the pandemic, rejoining society after years behind bars was a rough transition for many former prisoners, with steep hills to climb. Housing and job opportunities for former prisoners were always scarce. This coupled with managing drug addictions, parole requirements and family obligations makes the first months of freedom a delicate time.

Those who were released amid Covid-19 were spit out by a prison system in chaos, and were often unsure of whether they had been infected and where to get tested. Many arrived home in communities reckoning with unemployment and trauma related to the pandemic. And the network of state workers and non-governmental organizations that are supposed to help them ease back into normal life was pushed to the brink, with prison counselors and parole agents scrambling to get people placed in housing and set up with healthcare.

“Re-entry resources are so important in pre- and current Covid times. You need logistical support for finding a bed, food and navigating bureaucracy as well as emotional support like counseling,” said Sandra Gonzales, the operations director with The Place 4 Grace, a nonprofit that works with children and their incarcerated parents.

More than two months and four negative coronavirus tests after stepping out of San Quentin, William Blackwell is still not home. He has seen his family just a handful of times and isn’t at work. Stuck in a transitional home, his movement is restricted by policies that remind him of his time locked up.

“All of my post-release plans were made pre-outbreak. But because of Covid, things got pushed up, now I’m scrambling,” Blackwell said. “I learned to be patient after 26 years in prison, but it’s still a struggle.”

•••

Blackwell grew up in Los Angeles and was in and out of prison for robbery and selling drugs since he was a teenager. He held and delivered drugs for his stepfather, a drug dealer, he said, and later joined a gang. He was sentenced to life in prison in 1994 for conspiring to rob a bank. He was 32 at the time.

“Me and school didn’t get along. I was more comfortable in the streets. I became a criminal and followed in my stepfather’s footsteps,” said Blackwell, who is slim-framed with a clear baritone voice. “In 1994, I knew the long sentence was coming and I accepted it as my reality.”

When the coronavirus struck California at the start of 2020, Blackwell was held in San Quentin in the San Francisco Bay Area, the oldest state prison. On an early morning in June, Blackwell’s cellmate – who had complained about having chills and a fever – passed out while using the restroom. The man’s head hit Blackwell’s calf on the way down, Blackwell recalled. Both Blackwell and his cellmate tested positive for Covid-19. More than 2,000 people in the prison would end up catching the virus – the largest number of infections in any prison in the country.

Blackwell learned he was being released less than a week later, almost two months before his original parole date. Since he was still testing positive for Covid-19, CDCR and parole arranged for him to spend his first 10 days in freedom at the Gardena motel. The stay was sponsored by Project Hope, a state-run program that provides up to two weeks of housing for those just getting out of prison and in need of quarantine space.

“I was elated and relieved to get out but it was bittersweet because people were still dying in there,” Blackwell said. “I have friends that are doing the right thing, trying to change their lives, but they’re getting sick.”

I was elated and relieved to get out but it was bittersweet because people were still dying in there

William Blackwell

By the time California prison officials announced the first positive Covid-19 cases in late-March, several staff members and three inmates had tested positive. Rapidly spreading outbreaks in prisons including Avenal, a medium-security prison in the Central Valley, and San Quentin led officials to halt all in-person visits and volunteer programs.

Eventually, California officials would agree to release 6,000 people early in an effort to slow the spread of the virus inside the prison system. The policies prioritized people who are elderly, medically vulnerable and those with six months or less left on their sentences, and excluded those convicted of violent crimes as well as people who would have to register as sex offenders upon release.

The state’s re-entry services and the many nonprofits working alongside it, too, were reckoning with the impact of the pandemic. The weeks and months of preparation to get housing and healthcare for people who are about to be released were truncated into a few days. Meetings with parole agents to review parole requirements, such as weekly drug testing, had to shift to Zoom.

“We’ve taken 1,000 people home in the last three weeks,” said Sam Lewis, the executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), a re-entry and criminal justice reform nonprofit staffed by formerly incarcerated people, in late-August. “Before it might have been an ebb and flow, but now we need about 10 cars up to one prison in a single day.”

Building the capacity to deal with the wave of releases left organizations and officials scrambling, Lewis said. “I applaud the governor for his efforts, but we didn’t have the infrastructure for these releases. We’re building it up while people are coming out.”

That infrastructure includes everything from basics like making sure people have a place to quarantine, a way to get there and food delivered during their stay, to getting them set up with cellphones, internet access and stipends if they’re out of work.

Since July, California has given $30m to groups such as ARC to give to smaller nonprofits who work directly with former prisoners. The bulk of the government grants and donations has gone toward transportation, hotel rooms and 2,000 longer term beds in local transitional homes, Lewis said.

The magnitude of the crisis has forced local organizations to collaborate more, he added, to ensure that people aren’t released into homelessness or left to fend for themselves. “It’s a huge lift and month to month the number of releases and quarantine rules change,” he said. “We’re having more discussions with the CDCR and community-based groups and the level of coordination we have shows how important it is that we continue this post-Covid.”

•••

Roderick Thompson was handed a prepaid card with almost $200 when he left Avenal state prison in July, and he spent it towards two nights in a motel room where he could quarantine.

Thompson, 33, had been in Avenal since 2016. He grew up in Compton, California, in an adoptive home. He says life with his adoptive parents was dysfunctional at times, and his biological mother’s drug addiction and subsequent absence left a void he tried to fill with gang activity and drugs.

Thompson was 16 when he faced his first criminal case: receiving stolen property from a local high school. It also marked the first time he was strip-searched, a process that he says would eventually become routine. At first, he was put on probation, but after missing a court date he was sentenced to time at a juvenile detention camp in Lancaster, where he spent about six months before ageing out of the system and reconnecting with his biological mother.

While living with his mother, Thompson got hooked on cocaine and spent two years battling addiction and experiencing bouts of homelessness. After a string of robberies he was arrested and sentenced to nearly eight years.

“It was kind of fun,” Thompson recalled. “I was still young and felt like I wasn’t in prison because the facility was full of narcotics and cellphones.”

Thompson, a glasses-clad man with a youthful face, was released in late 2015 and says that even after years of incarceration he still had “a criminal mentality,” and a short temper. While on a grocery run with his pregnant girlfriend in November 2016, almost a year after his release, he got into an argument with a store employee and told the man, “I’m gonna be back for you.”

Less than an hour later he was arrested and eventually convicted of making a criminal threat. Since he had a prior conviction and was on parole at the time, he was sentenced to another eight years in prison. During his stint in Avenal, he joined several rehabilitative groups and eventually became an organizer who spread news about criminal justice reforms to his peers.

“I finally realized there was no reason to continually let my family down and mess around with criminal activity,” Thompson said. “Making the change was stressful, but I put the work in.”

In May, when California was in lockdown because of coronavirus, life in Avenal still felt normal, Thompson said: no masks, no quarantines, just the occasional temperature check. Later that month he lost his sense of taste and smell, and realized something was wrong. Thompson and other prisoners with similar symptoms didn’t disclose their symptoms to staff out of fear of having their possessions thrown away and being moved to an unfamiliar part of the prison.

“Once the staff noticed that people’s temperatures were high, they decided to test everyone, but it was too late,” Thompson said.

Thompson tested positive for Covid-19 at the end of May. The diagnosis coincided with the peak of the prison’s outbreak – eventually 804 people would test positive. Once his building was put under quarantine Thompson says he used the newfound free time to map out his goals for life after prison, which included restarting his cleaning business and building a bond with his now three-year-old son.

In mid-July – nine months before his original release date – Thompson was called to a correctional officer’s podium and told that he qualified for the state’s expedited release program. He’d be out by the end of the month.

By the time Thomspon was packing up his cell he’d had a mental health exam, but no clue as to where he would quarantine or how he would get back to southern California. A parole counselor had asked him if he had a job and housing in place, but those plans were still ambiguous. The abysmal guidance he got from prison officials in the days leading up to his release felt like “a slap in the face”.

“CDCR gave us this virus and then kicked us into the community with nothing: no ID, no benefits or way to transition,” he said shortly before leaving Avenal.

Arnold Trevino, a re-entry service provider, met Thompson at the gates of the prison just after dawn on 30 July, and took him to breakfast before driving him to the train station. Together, they went over Thompson’s options.

CDCR gave us this virus and then kicked us into the community with nothing: no ID, no benefits or way to transition

Roderick Thompson

Like Blackwell, Thompson was released before testing negative for Covid-19 and would have to quarantine. Project Hope still provided free hotel rooms, but he was too late to get one before he got to southern California. He couldn’t stay with family because, as far as he knew, he was still positive for Covid-19 and feared passing the disease on to elderly relatives.

“When I got to that train station to go back to LA I didn’t know what I was gonna do,” Thompson said. “I had a small variety of options for where I could live and then was thrown off by the early release.”

When he reached Los Angeles after an almost seven-hour journey on a train and bus, he decided to use his release money to pay for a motel room where he could quarantine and figure out his next steps.

While in the motel Thompson sought help from his parole officer and organizers with Initiate Justice, a criminal justice reform nonprofit that Thompson worked for while in prison. After two nights, parole told him that he was moving to a transitional home where he could quarantine, get tested for Covid-19 and begin his reintegration in earnest.

Thompson has continued living in the same home where he was quarantined, and plans to stay there until he completes his parole next year. Since he was officially declared Covid-free, his return to the community and workforce has been mostly smooth, he said. Early into his re-entry Thompson went to the DMV to get a new ID card and driver’s license, and briefly held a job cooking in a South Central Los Angeles market. A fight that broke out in the store made him worry about violating his parole and landing back in prison, and he left in October. He is now hoping to start a nonprofit to help youth and adults who are in prison.

“That was a high-risk situation for me and as a parolee I have to evaluate every situation,” Thompson said. “There’s no way I can fail unless I go back to hanging with the wrong crowd and I have a child to take care of, so I can’t afford to do things that won’t benefit or this baby I created.”

•••

Blackwell, who had left San Quentin in July, has been out of prison almost three months, but feels he is “still under guard”. He lives in a transitional home in Los Angeles, where staff accompany him on errands to local stores and trips to the DMV.

“My sentence is up, and I was required to go to a transitional home, not a prison on the streets,” Blackwell said in mid-August. “I understand the safety protocols but being locked in is hindering my progress.”

Doug Bond, the CEO of Amity Foundation, which runs the transitional home, said adjusting to the demand for services while trying to avoid outbreaks has led to “difficult decisions” such as discouraging people from taking jobs like janitorial work in healthcare facilities and putting limits around when and where people can visit with their families.

“It’s a delicate balance and none of us are enjoying the restrictions,” Bond said. “We don’t want people to have to turn down work and family events, but we have to think about the safety of a lot of people,” he added.

In early October, after speaking with the Guardian, Bond sat down with Blackwell to listen to his frustrations and explain the reasoning behind Amity’s policies. After their meeting, house staff told Blackwell that he would be one of 11 people to participate in a job development workshop. Blackwell said he was surprised that Bond came to see him specifically, but is still unsure of how much change will come from the CEO’s visit.

“I’m still skeptical because there was no mention of a concrete change that could help everyone in the house,” Blackwell said. “He just said it would take gradual change.”

Covid-19 is still ravaging California’s prisons. Folsom state prison, a medium-security facility near Sacramento, didn’t report its first case until late-August and within weeks shot from one to 611. In that same period Avenal saw a new outbreak after cases dropped in mid-July. Meanwhile, early releases have slowed significantly.

Just over 1,500 people were released early from early-August to the end of September compared with 4,220 people the prior month, according to court filings. California prisons remain overcrowded, antiquated architecture and poor ventilation persist, and advocates continue to call for mass releases, especially for the almost 6,600 people who the CDCR has identified as being “medically high-risk for Covid-19”. Just 57 of those identified have been released as of early-October.

Blackwell’s waiting for a background check for a job with a delivery company that contracts with Amazon. He said he’s leaning on the lessons he learned after two decades of incarceration to help him remain patient. Last month, he got to see his family while attending his granddaughter’s sixth birthday party.

“Being in prison for 26 years made me figure out ways to survive: I learned how to multitask, and my thought process changed,” Blackwell said.

“So I can laugh at these frustrations because I can see past the obstacles now.”