Prison Outbreak: Release Bittersweet After Surviving COVID

All this week, KCBS Radio is examining the coronavirus outbreaks at California prisons. In part one we heard what it is like to be sick with COVID-19 at San Quentin. In part two we looked at what has changed inside prisons to prevent similar outbreaks. In part three, a victim of violent crime spoke about why she supports calls for mass releases. In part four of our series, KCBS Radio reporter Kathy Novak speaks to two men who caught COVID-19 in San Quentin and have just been released. 

When Chanthon Bun was 18, he was a young father and a gang member. 

"I didn’t have a job, didn’t know how to read and write, couldn’t get a job if I tried," he told KCBS Radio. 

In 1997, he was the lookout guy in a robbery. Sentenced to just shy of 50 years, he says he lost hope. But when his grandfather died, he decided to make a change.

"I was in solitary for almost five years. It took me almost five years to learn how to read and write on my own."

He threw himself into rehabilitation programs. "I went head first and took every group and tried to understand myself. I got my GED."

When he finally got the chance to be considered for parole this February, it was granted on his first try. 

But he had to wait a few months for final approval and in the meantime, COVID-19 had broken out in San Quentin. 

"I didn’t want to let them know I’m sick where they could lock me up or take my parole date away," he explained. So he refused a test, and he was not tested before he was released. 

Complicating matters, Bun is a Cambodian refugee and not a US citizen. So he was expecting Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to be waiting for him at the gate. When they did not show up, he was relieved, but realized he did not have a ride. He says he was told to get on a public bus to San Francisco. He borrowed someone’s cell phone to call his lawyer and rode until the last stop. 

"I was hallucinating. I was overwhelmed. I had motion sickness. I was sick from COVID and I couldn’t do nothing, I just had to lay down."

His lawyer found him napping on a public bench and took him to get a COVID test, which came back positive. A community group provided a place for Bun to isolate and medical care. 

Jack Benford had also already been granted parole when the San Quentin outbreak happened. On the day he was released from San Quentin, he called KCBS Radio from a Super 8 motel in Sacramento, where he was isolating. 

"As I sit here on the phone with you, sitting in the hotel, it’s surreal," he said.  

Benford had been in and out of the system since he was 15 and is now 46. He had been in prison for 23 years as a three-striker when he granted parole last November. 

"When I told my mother that they found me suitable and I was coming home, I heard her tears of joy that she knew I was being paroled."

But he was still incarcerated in San Quentin when COVID broke out, and he got infected. After testing negative twice, he was told to pack his things one morning. 

Happy to be in the motel, he had one immediate problem, "I’m hungry! And I can’t leave."

He had been given some numbers to call about food, but he could not get through. Eventually, friends dropped off meals. Later, community groups stepped in to help. 

Jack Benford, formerly incarcerated at San Quentin, isolates in his hotel room
Jack Benford/KCBS Radio

But, he still could not celebrate. "This whole situation is bittersweet because I lost my mother and my father during this whole COVID situation," he said. They died within weeks of each other from COVID while he was waiting to be released.  

Benford and Bun also both lost friends who passed away after catching COVID at San Quentin

"We went to school together, we had groups together - self-help groups - we did all this work on this journey to really rehabilitate ourselves and fix ourselves. To have them die," laments Benford.

He said his friends would still be alive if it were not for the people who allowed coronavirus to be brought into San Quentin from a prison in Chino. 

"The same way I had to be held responsible and accountable for my actions, for breaking the law, I had to do my prison sentence. I did that and I have been released," said Benford. "Now who’s going to have to be held responsible and accountable for those that have died?"

"I’ve been through COVID. I know how much care people need to survive this," said Bun. "And leaving them in there until they’re on their last breath is not good enough."

Bun also said with programs shut down, San Quentin isn’t the same place right now - the one that helped him turn his life around. 

"When you go to San Quentin you don’t see people walking around scared," explained Bun. "You don’t see visitors walking around with guards. You see a campus with people running back and forth to classes, to college, to work, to programs. It was a place for learning, for rehabilitating and for healing."

It is a concern San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin shares, as programs are largely suspended at institutions around the state. 

"What we’re seeing is prisons and jails revert to their core function, which is warehousing human beings in conditions that are largely inhumane and medically unsafe," said DA Boudin. 

Stanford Criminal Law Professor Robert Weisberg says it has been established that a mistake was made with the Chino transfer. He believes the governor is right to arrange for more releases, but pointed out that many people serving long sentences are not eligible.

"If you put together vulnerability and low risk of danger to public safety, it’s kind of a no brainer that the people that you should release are the elderly prisoners. They’re more susceptible to getting very very sick from the virus, and they are about zero danger to public safety," he explained. "The major indicator of risk of being a criminal - or at least a violent criminal - when you get out is your age. Older people are almost always safe to release."

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Gov. Newsom both declined to be interviewed for this series, but Gov. Newsom has said when considering more releases, he wants to be sure he is not sending people to the streets

But Bun said his community was there for him. 

"The community’s out there protesting saying, 'Bring them, we will care for them,'" he said. "Bring them so they don’t die."

As for Jack, he hopes to find a job, but knows the pandemic will make that harder. 

"I believe I have a lot to contribute to society," he said. "I have taken things from it, but I also believe I have a lot to offer back to it. And I just want the opportunity. I want the chance."

In part five, we will visit an organization supporting formerly incarcerated people through job opportunities.