COVID-19 and the California Prison Crisis: 24th San Quentin Inmate Dies Last Friday

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The 24th inmate from San Quentin State Prison died Friday from COVID-19 complications, part of the unfolding national prison apocalypse.

San Quentin has the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases in the country, with a third of inmates and staff members -about 2500 people – testing positive.

As reported by The Mercury News:

The inmate is the 52nd in the state prison system to die from complications of the virus, according to the state’s tracker. The prisons have confirmed 8,665 cases of the virus in the system, including 1,007 over the past two weeks.

The initial outbreak at San Quentin seems to be a direct consequence of California’s prisoner transfer policy, according to The Guardian, San Quentin faces California’s deadliest prison outbreak after latest Covid fatalities:

The outbreak at San Quentin began after a late-May transfer of 121 people whom officials deemed to be at high risk of contracting and becoming seriously ill from Covid-19, from the California Institution for Men in Chino. Before the transfer San Quentin had zero positive cases; within four weeks of the move, it had reached almost 1,200 cases.

First Person Account from Inside San Quentin

Let me turn over the floor to Rahsaan Thomas, a San Quentin inmate, writing in Inside, I’ve served 19 years in San Quentin prison and I just got diagnosed with COVID-19. Where is the justice?:

The corrections officers aren’t good at telling us whether we’re positive. For some people, the only hint has been when an officer keys your door, meaning you’re forced to stay in your cell while everyone else goes to chow. When they’re done, you pick up your tray or sack lunch with everyone else who tested positive. They don’t clean the railings or anything between groups of people with positive cases and negative cases. Everyone mingles in the same space, one after the other.

Everyone who lives in North Block will have COVID-19 sooner or later. It’s up to the disease whether we live or die because the system won’t release people who committed violent crimes, and that’s almost all of us in the cell blocks.

No emergency consideration is being given for the fact that some of us haven’t committed another violent crime in 20 years and, therefore, aren’t violent anymore.

Thomas notes that releasing prisoners is one way to stem the pandemic. Yet despite the crisis facing the state, California has been slow to furlough some inmates:

They could have released 900 people from San Quentin without a crime spree. For people who have committed violent crimes and served life sentences, the recidivism rate is dramatically low, less than 2%, according to studies, and none for a new violent crime.

Most people age out of crime after 40. Hell, a lot of these “menaces to society” in here are gray-haired old men on walkers and canes. We’re the safest group to release, but I guess “violent criminal” is the new dog-whistle word for Blacks. We get arrested more for violent crimes than other races, so despite the lowest recidivism rates, the doors remain closed to those who have committed violent crimes even during a freaking deadly pandemic.

Yeah, there are some people who aren’t ready, some who may never be ready to safely release. But there are more than 3,200 people here, of which I firmly believe we can squeeze a list of 900 people to release without endangering the public. Some would even improve society.

And don’t tell me COVID-19 is a natural disaster and not the system’s fault. Out there in the world, yeah. But in prison, you can’t get the virus unless someone brings it in. In our case, they transferred the virus here from another prison. Then they didn’t learn and transferred it from here to another prison — instead of letting people go.

Thomas faces up squarely to what he has done and does not succumb to maudlin self-pity, but asks:

As horrible as I was years ago, I killed one person. Now 22 people have died in my prison alone from this COVID-19 fiasco.

And you call me violent?

Now, if Thomas is correct – and we have no reason to assume he’s lying – California hasn’t taken sufficient precautions to sanitize the prison nor to maintain proper social distancing. The number of positive cases certainly suggests that is the case. And yes, I understand this is San Quentin, not Club Med- although I fail to see why paying one’s debt to society means forfeiting one’s humanity. Scandinavian prisons, I understand, are nowhere near as brutal – nor I would guess, as unsafe at the moment.

California’s lack of prevention went so far as to impede distribution of donated hand sanitiser intended to make inmates safer. According to KTVU, Why San Quentin didn’t hand out rapper E-40’s hand sanitizer donation:

Rapper E-40 made headlines in May when he said he planned to donate 1,000 gallons of hand sanitizer to San Quentin and Lompoc prisoners, hoping the cleaning solution would help disinfect skin and surfaces in crowded cells.

But KTVU has learned that the hand sanitizer has not made it outside of its boxes and certainly not into the hands of incarcerated people, at least, not at San Quentin.

In an email, California Department of Corrections spokeswoman Dana Simas said while the prison system appreciates the community’s desire to donate items to help address COVID-19, there are “detailed procedures for accepting donations that are laid out by department and California state government policies.”

She wrote that San Quentin State Prison “still has the items, but the institution has received ample donations in addition to the hand sanitizer being produced by the California Prison Industry Authority that is being provided to both staff and in the incarcerated population statewide.”

Without providing details, Simas added: “Unfortunately, the donation was not submitted in accordance with these policies.”

Simas did provide a general sheet of information that San Quentin administrators must consider before accepting donations.  One criteria is that prison officials must “consider the perception of the acceptance to other suppliers. How does the department remain fair and impartial if a decision is eventually made to solicit the product?”

Indeed. That’s certainly one California bureacrat’s definition of fairness. Still, there’s only speculation so far as to why the hand sanitiser has not yet found its way to San Quentin inmates.  KTVU nonetheless suggests:

Since the exact details of why E-40’s donation was not accepted, the internet speculated: It’s probably because of the alcohol in the sanitizer.

E-40 and a representative from Tom’s Town distillery told KTVU on Thursday that this was the first they are hearing of this and they are genuinely confused as to why the why prison says their sanitizer doesn’t comply.  The alcohol in the sanitizer, they pointed out, is also rubbing alcohol, not the kind you drink.

When E-40 first came up with the idea of donating the hand sanitizer, he said he could only imagine the prisoners’ anxiety, living in such tight quarters with limited social distancing, and he wanted to do something to help.

As of this week, 51 incarcerated people have died in California prisons. 

Both the rapper and the company said they worked closely with government and prison officials to make sure their sanitizer met FDA and state correctional standards and guidelines. They also said they filled out the necessary paperwork that they were given.

E-40 said he hopes to get more answers as to what happened so that his gift can get into the hands of those who need it most right now.

His intention from the beginning, he said, was to do some good in the world and to save lives.

Some Context: Insight from Michele Deitch, Prison Expert at the LBJ School of Public Affairs/Univeisity of Texas School of Law

Now, the San Quentin outbreak is only one of many – albeit the worst – unfolding at prisons throughout the country. And many of these infections and subsequent  deaths were completely preventable, if prison authorities heeded the advice of prison experts such as my old friend, Michele Deitch, who holds a joint appointment  at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs and the University of Texas School of Law.

When we were at Oxford together back during the Thatcher years, Michele was already studying prisons and prisoners. I recently reconnected with her at a wedding in January and last featured her thoughts in an interview I posted in March, Prisons and the COVID-19 Pandemic: What Must Be Done NOW to Prevent Catastrophe.

Alas, needless to say, California – and most of the rest of the country, for that matter, failed  to follow Michele’s prescient advice, even though similar recommendations were amplified and repeated by other prison experts.

“California’s decision to transfer infected prisoners into San Quentin is unfathomable— it put so many vulnerable individuals, both incarcerated people and staff, at risk.,” said Deitch. “And we are now seeing the entirely predictable and tragic consequences of that terrible decision. It is hard to imagine the sheer terror and anxiety that people housed in San Quentin must feel, since they are without any control over their environment nor do they have any ability to protect themselves from this virus.”

Michele notes that California has finally taking additional steps to protect vulnerable inmates, by agreeing to their early release. But these actions should have happened far earlier.

“California has finally relented and agreed to expedite the parole release dates for roughly 18,000 people.  This is something that should have happened ages ago, long before the virus was so widespread, when experts were saying that the situation was a disaster in the making,” said Deitch.

“Now, the agency is faced with the challenges of releasing many people who either have or have been exposed to the virus,” she continued. “Service providers are scrambling to help them find safe housing and sort out their re-entry needs, which is always difficult and exponentially more difficult during a pandemic.”

Especially as landlords start evicting people, in search of higher rents – which returning inmates are unlikely to be able to pay.

In addition, the Guardian reports;

As of Tuesday morning, the state prison system had seen 8,362 positive cases in total since late March, 6,720 of which have been marked as “resolved”, according to the state prison coronavirus reporting tool. Now that the number of active cases has decreased, Michael Bien, an attorney who has long fought to reduce prison populations, says that the state must start to re-establish programs that were paused to stop the spread of Covid. Prisons should allow people to earn credits that can decrease their sentences and establish remote psychiatry for those who need it, he said.

“There has been some good news, but the control they achieved is at the cost of totally locking down prisons and stopping transfers and rehabilitative groups. That is not a solution,” Bien said. “If this continues, people are gonna lose whatever rehabilitation they’ve had, and the mental health of patients will worsen.

These observations echo points made by Michele in her March interview with me.

California’s Specific Response to Queries Regarding San Quentin Deaths

In the face of such a catastrophe at San Quentin, what else does California do? Why, attempt to cover it up, naturally. According to KTVU again, this time in 24th San Quentin inmate dies of COVID-19 as mystery shrouds most IDs:

The person died Thursday and no additional information will be given out “to protect individual medical privacy,” the agency said, though a First Amendment lawyer said keeping the names private violates California law.

Why does this remind me of CalPERS  – where IIRC the staff routinely seeks to suppress the  disclosure of information as clearly mandated under California law? (See, as only one of numerous examples, Yves’s latest take on CalPERS, which if you haven’t seen it already, is well worth a read, CalPERS Chief Investment Officer Ben Meng Resigns Following Our Exposing His False, Felonious Financial Disclosure Filings and Private Equity Conflicts of Interest).

Over to KTVU, in the Mystery Shrouds Most IDs link, again:

On top of that, the Department of Corrections has been releasing some of the names, pictures and brief criminal histories of certain incarcerated people — only those who are on Death Row.

When asked why that is, prison spokeswoman Dana Simas said in an email: “CDCR has, for decades, issued a press release in the event a condemned inmate dies within our custody, regardless of COVID. You can see the list of condemned inmates who have died within our custody here. We won’t be providing any further information on those not identified as condemned. Thank you.”

But David Snyder, an attorney with the First Amendment Coalition, said that dead people do not have a right to privacy, and if the CDCR is claiming a privacy exemption allows them to withhold those names, “they are wrong.”

Snyder added that there is a “high public interest in those who have died of COVID at San Quentin,” partly because of the coronavirus outbreaks there and partly because they are “on the public radar,” meaning they are people who were convicted of crimes by public officials acting in the name of the public.”

KTVU has been trying to learn the names of all the prisoners who have died of coronavirus through other government channels as well as by reaching out to family members and friends.

Two of those men are: Melford Henson, 65, who died of coronavirus on May 6 at the California Institution for Men in Chino and Carlos Oropeza Canez, 60, who died of coronavirus at Avenal State Prison on June 20.

County coroners also should have the names of those who died.

In Marin County, just four of the 23 San Quentin coronavirus cases were overseen at the coroner’s office there, according to Sheriff Chief Deputy Roger Fielding. It’s unclear where this week’s death will be investigated. Fielding released the names of those who died in his jurisdiction. Three were on Death Row and their names had already been released. The name of the fourth person is John Stevens, 72, who died of coronavirus on July 14 at San Quentin.

The rest of the incarcerated San Quentin people died at hospitals in other counties, so the coroners in Alameda County, San Mate and San Francisco counties are reviewing their deaths. KTVU has not yet been able to track down any of these death reports.

California Policy

While we may not know their names, at least some – if not all – of these men died as a result of California’s misguided policy of transferring COVID-19 prisoners to San Quentin. And similarly, others will get sick or die because San Quentin inmates were transferred onward to other California state prisons.

No one denies these men were convicted of committing crimes and for that they are being duly punished. But many now dead or diseased inmates were not sentenced to death for their convictions. And even for those who were so sentenced  – but COVID-19 took instead – the death penalty was never supposed to be exacted like this. Doesn’t the 8th Amendment have something to say about cruel and unusual punishment?

****

I post these videos in memory of my father, Harry Scofield, who would have turned 90 on the 12th had he not died in 2000. He was a die-hard Johnny Cash fan and I remember listening to Cash recordings with him.

From Cash’s live ’69 concert at San Quentin.

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33 comments

  1. verifyfirst

    The Marshall Project (which I don’t know anything about) seems to be the only organization tracking–or trying to track–national numbers for prisoners and Covid.

    https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/05/01/a-state-by-state-look-at-coronavirus-in-prisons?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter&utm_source=opening-statement&utm_term=newsletter-20200502-1975&utm_source=The+Marshall+Project+Newsletter&utm_campaign=65f6ef5966-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_05_02_11_03&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_5e02cdad9d-65f6ef5966-174599736

    There is also the issue of how many prisoners have been released “early” to reduce their Covid risk–and how those releases were done or not done. I don’t know if anyone is looking at that nationally.

    Reply
    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      The Marshall Project is indeed tracking the COVID-19 prison crisis. Overall, I find it to be a good site, and I often link to its articles.

      Reply
  2. verifyfirst

    Johnny Cash’s favorite car was apparently this black Rolls Royce Silver Shadow, which has recently been restored, and…..wait for it…..converted to electric! I think that is totally cool, I know some people think it is a sacrilege to so convert old classics, but I love it, especially if the alternative is no restoration.

    What was new–to me at least–about this conversion is they bought a brand new Tesla to cannibalize for batteries and motors and parts, and they took a lot more parts than people normally do, including electronic brake and steering systems, etc.

    Enjoy!

    https://www.digitaltrends.com/cars/johnny-cash-rolls-royce-electric-conversion/

    Reply
  3. mike

    I believe that the transfer was ordered by the federal court appointed medical director not the state of California.

    Reply
  4. TimH

    As I wrote previously, the highest risk sub-populations are high density… lower rent housing, prisons and other incarcerations such as state run nursing/mental homes, refugee and immigrant camps. The *determined* lack of effort to protect these specific populations feels like policy to me.

    Reply
  5. Oso

    thank you for this Jerri-Lynn
    we were security for the “No State Executions by Covid” protest last Sunday at San Quentin. there were several calls from prisoners inside (3 way to speaker) so they were given a voice. they’re scared, their families scared. they have to cut bars of soap up cause there isn’t enough. Regardless of how people feel about them, the state has a responsibility to keep them safe. you gave them a voice here.

    Reply
    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      So awful. Running out of something as essential as soap. And there’s all that hand sanitiser just sitting there, waiting to be distributed.

      Reply
  6. The Rev Kev

    Wait a minute. The infection there was caused by prisoner transfers. OK. But are Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System flights – aka ConAir – still flying prisoners around the country? Instead of spreading this virus from prison to prison, that would serve to spread the virus from State to State.

    Reply
  7. Mikel

    It’s insane to see the spread among an enclosed, institutionalized population and insist on sending more people into enclosed institutions – looking at you schools….

    Reply
    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Yes, indeed. I fear it will be a very long time before the US gets this pandemic under control.

      Reply
  8. Tom Stone

    California is a Carceral State, we imprison a larger percentage of our population than Russia, China or Germany ever did.
    The fact that the majority of our prison population has brown skins is completely coincidental and NOTHING to do with institutionalized racism, nosirree Bob.
    Perish the thought.
    Do keep in mind that the California Correctional Peace Officers Association is the most powerful union in California and a major political force.
    This is partly due to the Prison Industrial Complex, a “Public/Private partnership” which benefits everyone, you bet.
    Ask Kamala Harris if you don’t believe me.
    Some prisoners are paid as much as $.37 per hour!
    The California Dream, baby.

    Reply
  9. John Zelnicker

    Great clips of Johnny Cash. I’ve been listening to him off and on since the mid ’60’s.

    All of those songs are in the playlist rotation on my Pandora channel. I hear them at least once a day if not more often. It was a treat to see a video along with hearing them.

    The failure of prison administrations is not restricted to California. Alabama has had several severe outbreaks in our prisons and local jails. But, hey, they’re criminals, so why worry?

    The ongoing failures of our various levels of government and the total lack of empathy and compassion for those impacted by the coronavirus (not just prisoners) and the crashing economy is enough to make me despondent.

    Our only hope is to get the Orange Madman out of office. Not that Biden will be much better, but he still has some smarts left, there is some hope that he will hire people with some intelligence (even if I don’t like their policies), and he certainly will not create the kind of chaos and confusion we have been subjected to over the past four years.

    May doG save us all.

    Reply
    1. John Wright

      California is a very blue state, with a Democratic governor, two Democratic US senators and Democratic majorities in both the California State Senate (29 democrats, 11 republicans) and California State Assembly (61 democrats, 17 republicans, 1 independent).

      If the Democratic controlled California is an indication of better Democrat controlled government extrapolated to the federal level, “Not that Biden will be much better” may be quite accurate.

      I hope that President Biden’s administration does not get the USA into more “humanitarian” overseas military actions.

      Reply
      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        But nonetheless has bad prison conditions, on an absolute level – and I shudder to think there are other states that are even worse. Much, much worse, as I understand it.

        Nonetheless, I have a very close friend from Atascadero, California, either in or near which there is a prison, and he has been regaling me with anecdotes for years.

        Reply
    2. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Glad you enjoyed the clips. For a few brief moments while I picked them out, I could imagine my Dad was here, and we were listening to Cash again together.

      BTW, I really enjoyed that movie, I Walk the Line, and will seek it out for reviewing. Check it out if you haven’t seen it already.

      Reply
  10. ChiGal in Carolina

    Excellent post, another example of how unconstitutional (cruel and unusual) our criminal justice system is. Nice tribute to your dad, too!

    Reply
    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Thanks. One of the things about those Cash clips that struck me is that he oozes empathy towards his audience, the inmates of San Quentin.

      Reply
  11. howard in nyc

    My niece works in a different California prison, as a non-uniformed employee. I spoke with her in May, concerned about COVID, she said there were only two cases — both employees. Zero inmates, out of population of about 2800. The first inmate case wasn’t until July. Different weather conditions and architecture compared to Q (enclosed cells with doors rather than bars, modern ventilation, huge exercise yard) but the warden there is doing something right to control and prevent infections.

    Johnny Cash always works on Sunday mornings.

    Reply
  12. David in Santa Cruz

    There are currently more infected employees at San Quentin than there are infected prisoners (178 to 154). Inhumane conditions in prisons aren’t just about prisoners. https://www.sfchronicle.com/crime/article/San-Quentin-prison-sergeant-dies-from-COVID-19-15470941.php

    Does the victim of a homicide get a chance at rehabilitation? No. They are dead forever. But our society and community must not simply warehouse killers without consideration of their humanity or the humanity of the people who must feed and house them.

    It’s complicated.

    Reply
    1. JBird4049

      What’s complicated is our state’s powerful prison guard union as well as its brutality, the filled to beyond capacity prisons, the usually overworked and undersupplied public defenders, and the occasional crime lab scandals. Then there are such marvelous places like Pelican Bay Supermax.

      California is supposed to be a “liberal” or “Blue” state. The only way it can be called liberal is by comparison to the Southern States or perhaps to states like Oklahoma socially. But the state is a caste ridden poverty and stricken place run by people more in interested bribes than having a decent a justice system. It is not as bad as a number of American States, but considering some of those states, that’s a really low bar. I remember when the place worked and now we are getting like some third world nation with their hellish prisons.

      That’s why they didn’t care to quarantine the prisoners and the prisons.

      Reply
          1. John Wright

            The Atascadero facility is, apparently, not officially a prison, but is a CA State hospital.

            From Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atascadero_State_Hospital

            “Atascadero State Hospital, formally known as California Department of State Hospitals- Atascadero (DSHA),. DSHA is an all-male, maximum-security facility, forensic institution that houses mentally ill convicts who have been committed to psychiatric facilities by California’s courts”

            A link to a map of the CA state prisons is at https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/facility-locator/

            Atascadero is not on this map.

            The map gives an idea of the extent of the CA prison system and the importance to the local economies as most are in remote locations (Lompoc, Pelican Bay, High Desert) or higher unemployment agricultural regions.

            San Quentin, located on San Francisco Bay, should, easily, be the location most prized by real estate interests for possible redevelopment.

            While the Atascadero facility is apparently not part of the CA prison system, the “not a prison” may seem a minor distinction to those incarcerated there.

            Reply
  13. rjs

    let me give you all something to chew on..

    Virginia rape suspect allegedly killed his accuser after being released from jail due to coronavirus -  A man charged with rape is now accused of murdering his accuser after he was released from prison over coronavirus concerns, The Washington Post reports.  Ibrahim E. Bouaichi was indicted last year on charges that included rape, sodomy, strangulation and abduction, and was jailed without bond in Alexandria, Va. He had been accused of rape by Karla Dominguez last October and she testified about the crime in December.  But in April, Bouaichi’s lawyers argued the novel coronavirus put him and other inmates in danger, and a Circuit Court judge allowed for his release on $24,000 bond on the condition he stay confined to his Maryland home except for meeting with his lawyers or trial officials.  According to the Post, police say the 33-year-old returned to Alexandria on July 29 and shot and killed Dominguez outside her apartment. As police went to arrest Bouaichi, they realized he had shot himself. As of Thursday, Bouaichi remained alive but in grave condition. According to the Post, he has been charged with murder in Alexandria. Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter told The Post that normally those charged with violent crimes such as rape are denied bond because they are considered a danger, and prosecutors in the case had argued that he not be released on bond. According to The Post, there is minimal information on Dominguez, a native of Venezuela with no family in the U.S. A GoFundMe was launched after her murder to help cover funeral costs.

    Reply
    1. Wukchumni

      There must be half a dozen prisons in the CVBB and a good job here is one that ekes into the double digits per hour from a pay standpoint.

      By releasing hardened convicts into this milieu, the cure might be worse than the disease. The only work they could really do, is replace ailing Hispanics in the orchards and fields, and who are we kidding, that’d never work out.

      Every other country looks at incarceration as a necessary evil, whereas we looked at it as a profit vehicle, and now the chickens are coming home to roost.

      Reply
    2. Oso

      i absolutely agree it is a travesty Bouachi was released. the criminal justice system and law enforcement have near zero concern on crimes against women and her murder is a prime example of this. he should never have been considered for release, there are guidelines for these releases here in California which arguably would have prevented that here.
      by your “something to chew on” statement tho you seem to imply the empathy here is towards criminals rather than victims and in my case at least nothing could be further from the truth. My position is if the state is going to imprison people it must assume responsibility for their physical well being. feed them and keep them safe. They and their family shouldn’t have to fear death by covid.

      Reply
      1. rjs

        i agree, Oso, that the state has to take responsibility for the care of those it imprisons, and since i’ve done time myself, my own empathy tends to run with those who are locked up…but as i read the comment thread here last night, there didn’t seem to be any pushback against the type of program that resulted in Bouachi’s release…since that just happened to be one of the stories i had sent out with my weekly mailing less than 24 hours earlier, i grabbed that story excerpt and posted it here, obviously playing the devil’s advocate while also hoping to engender some thoughtful response…

        Reply
        1. Oso

          rjs,
          you did it well, and i was judgmental in my response, apology for that.
          I was on my way to a rally outside the san jose county jail for a friend unjustly locked up (he’s paroled from pelican bay, per witness he was vending at a swap meet here and someone pulled a knife during an argument. my friend intervened with a bookbag, hitting the knife wielder, SJPD charged him with assault!) he’ll beat it, but there have been 50 cases of covid here in the county jail so we are scared af about him being inside). why i was so testy :)
          many of us, especially in the native community have major concerns with womens issues being ignored by the justice system. abuse, predation, rape. to me ‘free em all’ doesn’t apply to DV or rape, ever.

          Reply
    3. verifyfirst

      Obviously a recent violent offender like this guy should not have been released. I am not aware of other jurisdictions releasing violent offenders, except perhaps for geriatric prisoners whose crime was committed decades ago.

      My concern from the get go was that most of our legal systems do not have the staff resources to evaluate the risk each individual prisoner might pose. Most systems appear to have erred on the side of not releasing prisoners who might have been safe to release.

      Reply

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