Recently Released State Prisoners Are Testing Positive for COVID-19

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A photograph taken in October shows a bed area inside the California Institution for Men in Chino. That prison has the largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, and officials say they're thinning out dorms so that groups of eight inmates will be separated from each other by 6 feet of space. (Prison Law Office)

At least three former prison inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 soon after they were released from the California Institution for Men (CIM) in San Bernardino County, raising concerns that the largest outbreak in a state prison could spread to the communities where people return upon release.

Rodney Walker, 63, was released on parole in Los Angeles County on April 3 after serving his full eight-year sentence. When he went to live in a halfway house in the city of Compton, he was free of symptoms, according to prison officials. But on April 11, he died from “apparent respiratory failure” and tested positive for COVID-19 after his death.

The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner department is still investigating the cause of Walker’s death.

CIM in San Bernardino has consistently housed the largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 64 inmates testing positive as of Tuesday. Over 1,200 inmates at the prison are in quarantine after being exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19, according to a status report filed in federal court.

The virus has also spread to 23 staff at the prison.

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Another man was released from that prison to Stanislaus County on April 8, just one day after corrections officials placed him on quarantine. Officials have not identified the man.

“He was asymptomatic in a comprehensive screening by institution medical staff before his release,” according to a press release from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), “and was provided a facial barrier to wear while in-transit to his identified county of release.”

Prison medical staff instructed the man to isolate himself until April 20, and they sent an email warning Stanislaus County health officials that he had had contact with a person confirmed to have COVID-19 while he was incarcerated.

But after his release, the man left the county, traveling more than 200 miles to the Northern California town of Ukiah to stay with a family member. When he got there, he called probation in Stanislaus County, who issued him a travel pass after the fact and then contacted Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall.

Kendall said Mendocino County health officials quarantined the young man and tested him for the virus — but not before he rode a bus, went shopping for groceries and visited with family members.

The man tested positive, according to Kendall.

Officials got him a hotel room and an ankle monitor.

“We have public health officials bringing him groceries and everything that he needs," Kendall said. “He's going to have to remain in quarantine in that location.”

Alarmed by the incident, Kendall asked his county’s probation department to identify any other people recently released from CIM, which is in Chino.

One man had been, but it turned out he didn't have the virus, Kendall said. Still, he's concerned about the lack of advance notice.

“He was released on the exact same day from the Chino prison in the exact same fashion,” Kendall said. “We received no notification — none.”

CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas said prison nurses notify county health officials whenever they release inmates who were quarantined for exposure to COVID-19. No people known to have the virus had been released, she said Monday.

But Sheriff Kendall wants CDCR to communicate about all releases from CIM.

“What I want to know is how many releases did Chino make?” Kendall said. “Where did those guys go?”

A third man released from CIM on April 6 was recently confirmed to have COVID-19, Lake County News reported Tuesday.

"It's kind of frustrating," Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin said. "The lack of information sharing is a result of the federal HIPAA laws (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) that really restrict when medical information can be shared and with what agencies it can be shared."

Martin hopes that in the future, CDCR will work around those restrictions to notify county law enforcement of any releases from prisons with high infection rates.

"If we know that someone is coming from one of those facilities, maybe we reach out to them, we offer them services, maybe we offer them testing, of monitor them, check to see if they have any signs or symptoms," Martin said. "It's not to punish them, it's nobody's fault that they catch coronavirus. But we wanna make sure that they're safe and our community's safe as well."

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News of the three cases emerged within days of CDCR announcing the first inmate to die from COVID-19 on Sunday.

The 60-year-old man, who also has not been identified, was also incarcerated at CIM.

Roughly 700 state prisoners have been tested, a small fraction of the more than 110,000 people currently incarcerated around the state. Of those, 151 were found to have COVID-19.

Medical staff in prisons, like their counterparts in the free world, are primarily testing people with symptoms.

The notable exception to that has been at a prison in Los Angeles County, where officials last week started mass testing men who share housing facilities. The California State Prison, Los Angeles County facility had the second largest prisoner outbreak, with 58 inmates and 15 employees testing positive for the virus.

Officials saw case numbers jump there after testing 100 men who share the same housing unit, according to a press release Sunday from the CDCR.

“These asymptomatic cases do not represent a new outbreak,” according to the press release, “but were tested out of an abundance of caution after known exposure.”

The inmate who died at CIM had been quarantined in a dorm with other inmates, according to papers filed in federal court Monday. His symptoms worsened on April 16, and he was transferred to an area hospital where he died three days later. Most of the 64 inmates who’ve tested positive for COVID-19 were housed in that same dorm, according to prison officials.

“Unfortunately, I believe that it's going to continue to play out at that prison,” said Alison Hardy, an attorney with Prison Law Office, a public interest law firm that advocates for the rights of inmates. “They're going to be more cases that come up.”

Hardy's colleagues visited CIM in 2019.

“There are many crowded dormitories that hold people who are elderly and some of whom are disabled, many of whom have chronic illnesses,” Hardy said. “For the past few weeks, they have been living together. The virus has been there.”

Prison officials are in the process of creating social distance inside dorms statewide by arranging beds in groups of eight. These “pods” will be separated by 6 feet of space, according to an updated plan filed in federal court this week.

The prison system initially asked employees a series of questions about their health when they came to work to determine whether they might be symptomatic. On March 27, the agency switched to infrared temperature screening for employees. Since April 15, staff and inmates are required to wear cloth face masks.

“Although there have been screening measures in place for a while for staff, people who don't have symptoms can be transmitting virus,” Hardy said. “I have deep concerns that over the next few months, that whole history of people bringing the virus in and people in the dorms starting to get the virus, is going to play out at other prisons.”

Hardy's office filed a series of emergency motions in federal court over the past few weeks seeking the release or relocation of medically vulnerable inmates.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar deferred to corrections officials to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in his April 17 denial of the latest motion.

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“Determining how to decrease population density to allow for increased physical distancing, while at the same time considering how to conduct movement in a way that ‘does not cause, contribute to, or exacerbate the potential spread of the disease,’ is not a simple matter,” Tigar wrote.