Gov. Newsom Halts Intake of Inmates Into State Prisons, Citing Coronavirus Threat

Gov. Newsom has temporarily halted all intake of new prisoners into state and juvenile facilities, citing threat of coronavirus. (Monica Lam/KQED)

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order Tuesday evening suspending the intake of new prisoners into both state and juvenile facilities, citing the health and safety of current staff and inmates in state lockups.

Newsom said counties should keep teenagers and adults in local facilities for at least the next 30 days. He also ordered all parole hearings to be conducted via video conference for the next 60 days, and instructed the state Board of Parole Hearings to create a system by April 13 to conduct those hearings.

The order came after the first reports of coronavirus in the state system: One inmate and five staff members, spread across four separate prisons, have tested positive for COVID-19.

"In order to address the legitimate anxieties and concerns related to prisoners and to make sure that we have procedures and protocols in place to protect staff and inmates from COVID-19 ... we are going to restrict the intake process in the system," Newsom said in a video posted Tuesday evening.

"We are putting together new protocols and procedures throughout that system — 35 prisons — to make sure that we are isolating people, that we are not mixing our prison populations as we tend to do with transfers and the like," he added.

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Newsom said he wants to make sure that parole hearings are still carried out, but in a safe manner.

"In each and every circumstance, when people are made eligible, they go through a very formal process of interviews and reviews — that's done in person," he said. "Because of the nature of this virus, the nature of this moment, we are going to be changing the procedures and protocols."

Newsom said that by starting a videoconference system, the state will still be able to "continue processing people that are eligible for parole ... at the scale it's been happening in the past."

The order stops short of what many civil rights advocates and defense attorneys have been calling for: a more widespread emptying of jails and prisons of inmates who are elderly and medically vulnerable, as well as those already set for release in the coming months. Scott Kernan, former secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) told KQED this week that the correctional system is a "tinderbox of potential infection" and expressed concern for both staff and inmates.

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More broadly, the virus has upended the criminal justice system with courts shuttering and jails being closed to visitors.

CDCR has halted all visiting and programs in prisons, and has also suspended the transfer of inmates to three community reentry programs, citing the potential for staff to be exposed to the coronavirus during inmate transfers and the potential for inmates to catch the virus at those reentry facilities.

El Dorado County Probation Chief Brian Richart, who leads the statewide association representing probation chiefs, said in a written statement that since the state Department of Juvenile Justice won't be accepting youth offenders, counties will need to prioritize high-risk and high-need young people at county facilities.

Those youth, he said, may "require a secure, safe environment."

"During these unprecedented times, we know there are only difficult choices as Gov. Newsom, state and local leaders tirelessly work to address the COVID-19 pandemic," Richart said. "We agree that we do not want to create another crisis with the response to this crisis."