California prison officials are doing everything they can to protect incarcerated people from Coronavirus outbreaks, except release half the population.
“What we are not going to do is make a bad situation worse,” said Ralph Diaz, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) at a recent hearing. He cited homelessness as just one example. “Also, before I would do that, I would be looking at the empty housing units that do exist within CDCR and maximized zones to reduce density at institutions.”
Diaz as well as Clark Kelso, the federal receiver over CDCR health care for incarcerated people, spoke at the California Senate Public Safety Committee Meeting July 7.
The meeting, chaired by State Senator Nancy Skinner, was initiated to review the Corona virus outbreak caused when officials transferred infected men from one prison to two others. The purpose of the hearing was to review CDCR’s plans to prevent further spread.
Senate committee members, activists, healthcare experts, and state assembly members Marc Levine and Ash Kalra lined up to have their say and get their questions answered.
Levine called for accountability; Senator Scott Wiener said that if the state wants to control the virus, it will have to reduce the prison population
Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson was so concerned about the situation, she questioned whether CDCR saw incarcerated people as human.
In his opening remarks Diaz outlined the efforts CDCR has taken to prevent Coronavirus outbreaks (see sidebar) and he responded to Senator Jackson’s remark about whether CDCR viewed incarcerated people as human: “…that’s the farthest from the truth. We care about inmates, we care about staff.”
By May of this year, there were hundreds of positive COVID-19 cases at the California Institution for Men at Chino, a prison in Southern California.
In order to protect medically vulnerable people housed at Chino, the CDCR transferred some of the men to San Quentin and some to Corcoran State Prison. Several of the transferees had COVID-19.
At the hearing, federal receiver Kelso explained the decision to move men out of CIM. “On May 23, we decided that the expanding cases at CIM posed an unacceptable risk to the last remaining dorm where hundreds of COVID-19 high-risk patients were housed.”
Although each person was tested before transfer, Kelso said the results were far too old to be reliable indicators for the absence of COVID. “In some cases,” he said, “the results were four weeks old.”
“As it turned out, two of 66 patients moved to Corcoran tested positive when they were retested at Corcoran,” Kelso said. At San Quentin, he said that out of the 122 transferred from Chino, 25 tested positive at San Quentin.
Cases ballooned at both prisons. By the date of the hearing, Corcoran had jumped to 125 active cases and San Quentin had increased to 1,106.
There were no confirmed Coronavirus cases at San Quentin until after the group from Chino arrived.
Moreover, in order to reduce the dorm populations from 200 to 100 people at San Quentin, the cell blocks were filled with two men in almost every 6×9 foot cell.
According to Kelso, doctors from UC Berkeley and UCSF toured San Quentin on June 12. They noted that the cell blocks’ poor ventilation could cause the “virus to spread very rapidly,” just like the dorms.
Dr. David Sears, a physician and professor of medicine at the University of California who was on that tour,