A COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin State Prison has been traced to a transfer from a Southern California facility that failed to retest inmates in the days leading up to the late-May move.
The botched transfer, which state lawmakers on Wednesday castigated as “abhorrent” and “the worst prison health screw-up in state history,” has so far infected more than 1,100 inmates at the Bay Area prison and led to a smaller outbreak at a Kings County facility.
Before the transfer in late May, the California Institution for Men in Chino used negative tests that were “two, three, and in some cases, four weeks old — far too old to be a reliable indicator for the absence of COVID” to OK inmates to be moved, said Clark Kelso, a court-appointed federal official who oversees health care in California’s prison system.
Kelso told state lawmakers at a hearing before the Senate Public Safety Committee that guidelines “did not specify that the required negative COVID test had to occur within only a short period of time in relation to the transfer, such as seven days or less,” resulting in the use of older test data.
By the time inmates arrived and were tested at their new facilities, 25 tests came back positive at San Quentin, while two transferred inmates tested positive at Corcoran prison in Kings County.
“Corcoran has been managing their outbreak pretty well so far,” Kelso said. “San Quentin, of course, has been a very different story and is in crisis.”
As of Wednesday, 1,135 inmates and 112 staffers at the facility have “active” coronavirus cases — a significant portion of the 2,603 inmates and 477 workers in the state corrections system who have tested positive for the virus.
Meanwhile, 16 of the 22 inmate deaths statewide have been people living at the California Institution for Men in Chino. There are currently 504 active COVID-19 cases there.
CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz said the agency is setting up a unified command center with officials from CalOES, the state Department of Public Health and other officials to coordinate custody and monitor the situation at San Quentin.
On Tuesday, CDCR also posted plans for expedited release of inmates who have fewer than 180 days left on their sentence.
Still, lawmakers struggled to get satisfactory answers from Kelso and Diaz about how the outbreak happened despite health regulations regarding inmate transfers, which were briefly paused in late March.
Democratic Assemblyman Marc Levine called the San Quentin transfer “nothing more than the worst prison health screw-up in state history.” Despite asking corrections officials for plans, the Marin County assemblyman said instead, “what we received was an unacceptable, unmitigated disaster delivered by a lack of planning and preparation,”
Sen. Holly Mitchell said she also asked repeatedly for detailed plans in her capacity as chairwoman of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, but hadn’t heard from the administration since early April.
“What can we do?” Mitchell asked, exasperated. “Writing letters hasn’t gotten us anywhere.”
Calls to Decarcerate
Advocates for incarcerated people say the simplest way to protect many older inmates and those with underlying health conditions which could make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus is to simply release them from the state’s overcrowded prisons.
They argue shrinking the prison population during the pandemic could also help improve social distancing in corrections facilities.
UCSF Dr. David Sears, who toured San Quentin in mid-June, described a “haunting” experience of hearing men “pleading behind locked doors for help,” and a “look of foreboding on the faces of the officers that could not be hidden behind their masks.”
After the visit, Sears made an urgent call for the prison to bring on medical leaders to oversee testing, staff and inmate health, and how the virus spreads in a prison environment, where many spaces are shared between dozens or hundreds of people.
“We need urgent decarceration to address overcrowding,” Sears said. “Frankly, it’s hard to understand how residents and staff can continue living and working at San Quentin at all.”
James King, a former inmate at San Quentin who now works with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said because of crowded conditions at the facility, he would get sick often, no matter how hard he tried to prevent it.
“It’s because I lived in a building which was designed for approximately 400 people, but housed nearly 800,” he said. “We shared 18 shower heads and 12 pay phones. The building was poorly ventilated, we lived in close quarters, the windows are welded shut, the cells have bars instead of doors.”
Sam Lewis with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to grant early release to elderly and medically vulnerable inmates, particularly those who have sentences ending in the next 6-12 months.
“If the governor is serious about saving lives, these ideas should be seriously considered,” he said.
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