SOLEDAD — An estimated three-dozen protesters gathered at the front driveway of Salinas Valley State Prison and the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad on Aug. 6, before moving to Monterey County Jail in Salinas that afternoon as part of a statewide effort calling for prison reform.
Organized by the group We Are Their Voices, the protesters cited concerns over Covid-19 safety, mistreatment by correctional officers, overcrowding and the for-profit nature of prison operations. They asked for improved conditions, an end to mass incarceration and early release of the incarcerated in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We’re busy in every prison and speaking out for our loved ones, not just about coronavirus, but about mass incarceration, and to have our loved one’s voices be heard,” said one of the protest organizers, a woman who said she didn’t want to give her name, but identified herself as Dawn Marie.
“We have started a movement of wives, fathers, brothers, sisters, loved ones,” Marie continued. “You don’t even have to have a loved one incarcerated. You’re tired of the system and what goes on within the system. So we are visiting every prison within California.”
Marie said the group is calling for Gov. Gavin Newsom and Secretary for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Ralph Diaz to commit to having CDCR review sentences and rehabilitation progress to consider prisoner releases.
“I’m not asking for you to open those gates and let them all go, I know there’s victims,” Marie said.
She explained that an evaluation of crimes, sentences and rehabilitation is in order for each prisoner in California.
“There’s men and women in prison who are doing life for some petty crimes,” Marie said. “I have loved ones in the system.”
Marie added that she has loved ones who also work in the system, giving her a perspective from both sides.
“Those COs (correctional officers) have loved ones to go home to, just like our loved ones have family to go home to,” she said. “We’re going to be out here, we’re going to keep fighting for change to mass incarceration.”
The name of the group fits the purpose, as Marie explained people tend to ignore the voices of inmates, itself a term the group declared a pejorative akin to identifying someone by a number. The phrase they preferred was “incarcerated loved one.”
“Incarcerated people, the public doesn’t listen to them, they feel that you did the crime, you do the time,” Marie said. “I just ask that people step back and be open minded. Everybody is so quick to judge, across the board … you never know what life is going to bring you. Have some compassion and don’t look at them as a number or an inmate. They’re not an inmate, they’re our loved ones.”
The trip to the county jail in Salinas was sparked more by concerns over the spread of Covid-19, Marie said.
“There’s been a mass sweep of coronavirus in there and the jails are not following protocol,” she said. “I just had a loved one go through the system of a jail. They put them in there, no hand sanitizer, it’s filthy, no masks. They put them in a cell together while they process their paperwork and then they move them into the jail.”
According to Marie, the protest at the jail carried the same message as the protest at the prison: a demand for change. Marie said We Are Their Voices plans to regroup and put on another protest in Sacramento in October.