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Cluster of COVID-19 Cases in Chino Prison Alarms Advocates

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At least 247 prisoners at the California Institution for Men in San Bernardino County have tested positive for COVID-19, along with 44 staff members. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Updated 6:03 p.m.

More than 370 inmates and at least 164 staff members at California state prisons are now infected with the coronavirus — the majority at a single prison in Chino, where hundreds more test results are pending.

In all, 247 prisoners at the California Institution for Men (CIM) in San Bernardino County have tested positive for COVID-19, along with 44 staff members. One inmate has died, while four have been released.

But the outbreak at CIM stands to be much larger: Prison officials said another 287 inmates have tests pending, with results expected over the coming days.

CIM is one of two state prisons where more widespread testing is underway: California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo County, where only 11 prisoners and two staff members have so far tested positive, conducted tests of 230 inmates on Monday alone, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Dana Simas said.

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California State Prison, Los Angeles County also has a cluster of more than 100 inmate cases of COVID-19.

In a statement, Simas said the uptick in cases at CIM is the result of expanded testing of asymptomatic prisoners.

"These asymptomatic patients do not represent a new outbreak," she said. "The testing data will help us identify who is negative and help us identify better medical care and housing needs for those who are positive."

Kate Chatfield, who advocates for prisoners, rejected that argument outright.

"The fact that infections are spreading is not a result, of course, as we know, of testing — it is rather a result of inaction on the part of the Newsom administration and CDCR," said Chatfield, a senior policy adviser at the Justice Collaborative, which works to reduce incarceration.

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Chatfield said prison officials need to release far more elderly and low-risk inmates than the 3,500 prisoners already sent home over the past few months. She warned that infections inside prisons won’t stay inside the facility.

"We cannot reopen our economy as people want unless and until we limit the spread of this infection, and we can't limit the spread of the infection unless and until we engage in measures to depopulate our prisons and jails that are now vectors for the infection," Chatfield said.

She said the virus will inevitably spread outside of prisons and into California communities without effective social distancing measures inside lockups — and that to institute social distancing, prisons need to be far less crowded.

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