California Prisons Are a 'Tinderbox of Potential Infection,' Former CDCR Secretary Warns

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An inmate of a state prison in Los Angeles County tested positive for COVID-19, prison officials announced Sunday, and staff at three other prisons have also been diagnosed with the disease. (Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images)

A man held at the California State Prison in Los Angeles County is the first inmate in the state to test positive for COVID-19, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He was put in isolation on March 19 after telling staff he felt sick.

As of Monday, five correctional officers in three different prisons — California Institution for Men in Chino, Folsom State Prison and California State Prison, Sacramento — have also been diagnosed with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. An employee at San Quentin State Prison reported on Friday to have tested positive for COVID-19 does not in fact have the disease, prison officials said Saturday.

Scott Kernan, a former secretary of CDCR, is among officials and inmate rights groups expressing concern over a potentially widespread outbreak in the state’s prisons and jails.

“You think cruise ships are a petri dish?” Kernan said in an interview Monday. “Prisons are even more so the mass of humanity. So I'm very concerned about my colleagues and the inmates and their families in jails and prisons across the country.”

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Kernan said state leaders need to look at all options to reduce the prison population to mitigate the worst impacts of an outbreak. The state’s prisons are overcrowded, operating at about 130% of capacity, with more than 123,000 people incarcerated across California. An additional 65,000 people work for the state prison system.

However, all Board of Parole Hearings, which generally assess prisoners who are eligible for release, have been suspended for at least a week. In-person visits and nearly all rehabilitative and educational programs have been canceled in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

Kernan said the lack of activities and connection is also likely to take a toll on people being held in prison.

“It's a tinderbox of potential infection as you go forward, especially if you are just watching what's going on around the world,” he said. “I know Italy and Brazil had serious violence and even escapes and murders in the jails as a result of COVID-19.”

CDCR posted a list of precautions the department is implementing, which includes social distancing, a two-week quarantine for all new inmates and immediate isolation for anyone who has a fever, to prevent the spread of the disease.

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But the Prison Law Office and a number of other advocacy groups are also pushing for the state to do more to protect the elderly and those with compromised immune systems in prison.

“We've been imploring the state through various channels to do what county jails are doing all over the state, which is reduce the density of the population by releasing people who are low risk,” said Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office.

Last week, the Santa Clara County and Alameda County sheriffs both moved to release hundreds of people early from jail. San Francisco courts have ordered dozens of inmates released early. Contra Costa County is also looking at steps to cut down the number of people held in jail.

On Monday, a group of 28 advocacy organizations wrote a letter to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra requesting the state’s top cop expand these localized efforts by directing all sheriffs to release people who have six months or less left on their sentences and asking local law enforcement to reduce arrests and bookings.

“Without action, thousands will likely die with the suffering falling disproportionately on low-income families, particularly Black and Latinx families,” the letter says.

Gov. Gavin Newsom addressed the calls from advocates in his Monday afternoon briefing.

“I have no interest — and I want to make this crystal clear — in releasing violent criminals from our system. I won’t use a crisis as an excuse to create another crisis,” he said.

Newsom said he has a task force looking at how to release people incarcerated for non-violent crimes in a “deliberative” way. He warned that the large-scale release of tens of thousands of prisoners called for by advocacy groups could cause a whole new set of problems for emergency medical providers.

“If we start to release prisoners that are not prepared with their parole plans, they may end up out on the streets and sidewalks, in a homeless shelter,” Newsom said.

So far, the prison system has not announced any concrete steps to release people. A spokesperson for CDCR declined to answer questions, but said the department has been posting all COVID-19 updates directly on its website.

“We are continuously evaluating and implementing proactive measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keep our CDCR population and the community-at-large safe,” the CDCR website says. “Additional measures will continue to be developed based on the rapidly-evolving situation.”