A new report about the effects of COVID-19 on California’s prison system encourages lawmakers and prison officials to reduce the prison population in order to save lives.
“We found that many California prison officials and staff did heroic work under incredibly difficult circumstances, But in many cases, it still wasn’t enough.” said Dr. Brie Williams, a professor of medicine and director of the Amend organization at UCSF who helped lead the research team.
California prisons were at a disadvantage because of old and sometimes antiquated buildings. It is nearly impossible to practice preventive measures like social distancing and isolating ill prisoners, because the institutions house thousands more inmates than they were designed to hold, according to the report.
There were 50,000 documented COVID-19 cases among prisoners by December 2021. There were also 16,000 cases among prison staff. COVID deaths included 240 prisoners and 26 staff, according to prison headquarters and the report.
Death rates among prisoners were higher than those in the non-incarcerated populations of the state of California and of the United States as a whole.
More than 1,000 inmates too sick to be treated in prison health facilities were admitted to local community hospitals during the pandemic. More than 150 were admitted to intensive care units. Inmates of color had higher risks of hospitalization than White inmates, the report noted.
The report recommends reducing overcrowding, increasing vaccination rates (especially among staff), prioritizing release of elderly and high-risk prisoners, and improving ventilation and heating systems. It noted many prison windows are welded shut.
“We believe that state policymakers and prison managers should look closely at the lessons learned in this crisis to help assure we’re better prepared in the future,” said Williams. “This includes giving attention to massively reducing the prison population in our state in the interest of public health, as overcrowding is likely the single greatest health threat in a respiratory pandemic.”
The report titled “California State Prisons During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was produced by researchers at University of California, Berkeley, and University of California, San Francisco. It was done under the auspices of CalPROTECT (California Prison Roadmap for Targeting Efforts to Address the Ecosystem of COVID Transmission), a joint project between the two universities investigating COVID-19 transmission in California prisons.