On Aug. 22, more than 50 individuals gathered—socially-distanced—at Santa Rosa Park in San Luis Obispo to take part in a caravan rally and protest from the park to the California Men’s Colony (CMC) in an effort to raise awareness about the recent COVID-19 outbreak
at the state prison.
PHOTO COURTESY OF CYNTHIA CRUZ
SUPPORTING LOVED ONES Renee Benavidez, creator of the group We Are Their Voices, is working to change the negative stigma surrounding incarcerated individuals throughout California.
Citing safety concerns of prisoners unable to self-isolate, a lack of face coverings and hand sanitizer, and a lack of transparency about virus transmission within the prison, the group called on CMC to implement a mass release of inmates.
The local group is part of a larger network of individuals connected to the We Are Their Voice Facebook group.
Established by Los Angeles resident Renee Benavidez, whose husband is currently incarcerated, the group formed after COVID-19 caused visitation rights to be taken away from prisoners.
Her husband had lacked visitation rights for four months when she decided formed the group. She said it was difficult not being able to see her husband, and Benavidez knew she wasn’t the only one facing this challenge.
“Even in my own husband’s voice, I’ve never heard him sound like that. It was a feeling of hopelessness,” she said.
When state prisons started to report positive COVID-19 cases and the numbers rose, Benavidez was alarmed and didn’t understand why she hadn’t heard of any organizations calling for more personal protective equipment, the release of non-violent and at-risk inmates, and more testing.
She created the Facebook group We Are Their Voices and scheduled an event to protest at the State Capitol in Sacramento.
She believed a small group of maybe 10 people would participate but 100 people showed up to support their incarcerated loved ones. The group has more than 2,000 members and protested in front of 22 of the 33 state prisons, including the California Men’s Colony.
“These people on the inside, they are thankful and others ask when we’re coming to their prison. And the most incredible part is when, the ones that can hear us because they’re out in the yard, they wing their shirts or towels, or bang their windows,” she said.
Benavidez said individuals whose family members are in a specific prison organize the local event for their community, and she helps by creating an event flyer and posting on the group Facebook page.
The group is calling for term-enhancements to end, safety precautions now and beyond the public health crisis, and harassment from prison personnel to end. Benavidez said she’s also trying to change the negative stereotypes about prisoners.
“We just want society to know that they’ve been lied to. We’re not saying everyone in prison is innocent and we’re not saying that they should not pay for what they’ve done. We’re simply asking they only pay for what they’ve done and their past not be used to take their whole life away,” she said. “We want that word ‘restored’ in our system, because it’s not.”
CMC Public Information Officer Lt. John Hill released a statement after the Aug. 22 protest stating that the institution has worked proactively with the San Luis Obispo County Department of Public Health to protect the safety of CMC’s staff and incarcerated population.
CMC staff are required to wear face coverings and receive personal protective equipment, the statement says, and the prison is conducting mandatory staff testing.
“CMC continues to provide its staff and incarcerated population with cleaning supplies that allow for the thorough cleaning and sanitation of all areas within the institution. The incarcerated population are provided protective masks they are required to wear, and hand sanitizer dispensers have been placed throughout the institution for staff and incarcerated persons to use,” the statement reads. “Additionally, CDCR has reduced the prison population by more than 18,000 incarcerated persons in order to implement increased physical distancing measures and maximize space for isolation and quarantine to quickly mitigate COVID-19 spread. We take the COVID-19 pandemic very seriously and will continuously adjust our response as new information and situations arise.”
As of press time, CMC had 227 positive cases
in custody, 113 of which were new. ∆