'Botched': Outbreak of COVID-19 at San Quentin Was Preventable, Lawmaker Says

Inmates on the yard at San Quentin State Prison in 2012. (Monica Lam/KQED/CIR)

An effort to test all prison staff at San Quentin State Prison for COVID-19 is underway this week after 16 inmates who recently transferred there have tested positive for the virus.

For months, the state’s oldest prison battled back the coronavirus in its inmate population — even as some members of its staff tested positive. Now, after a controversial inmate transfer from another prison, some officials are worried that an outbreak could spread rapidly.

In late May, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) transferred about 120 “potentially higher risk” men from the California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino to San Quentin.

CIM was the location of the first serious outbreak in the state prison system, and 13 people incarcerated there have died from complications related to the virus as of Thursday.

Brian Asey, who is serving a life sentence at San Quentin, said he and fellow inmates had already been worried about the coronavirus and the inability to physically distance within the prison. The transfer of new people added a layer of concern.

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“A lot of people worried about that. Like ‘Man, I don't want any of these dudes up in here,’” he said in a phone interview.

CDCR said that all inmates recently transferred to San Quentin had been previously tested and had been screened by health professionals shortly before traveling. A department spokesperson said in an email that when prisoners arrived at San Quentin, they “remained cohorted in celled housing and have been placed on 14-day quarantine and are undergoing additional testing for COVID-19."

But state Assemblymember Marc Levine, who represents the North Bay district where San Quentin is based, said Wednesday that the transfer was "botched" and the department didn’t take enough precautionary measures.

“What occurred was a series of preventable errors that will likely cause an outbreak at San Quentin,” he said. Levine said that state officials didn’t test close enough to the transfer date.

“To claim that a prisoner was tested prior to transfer when that test occurred as long as a month ago is just not accurate,” he said. “It does nothing to protect the health and safety of the prisoners and staff at San Quentin.”

Levine is calling for CDCR to conduct a review of the transfer and for them to create an incident command center at San Quentin and develop a public containment and prevention plan.

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In an email, a CDCR spokesperson said that future transfers will require that a test be performed within seven days of the transfer date.

Marin County’s public health officer, Dr. Matt Willis, said he is worried that the situation at San Quentin could get much worse.

“The way these outbreaks have occurred in other prisons across the nation and the state, you know that it's hard to feel reassured that we're not going to see another outbreak here,” he said.

Willis said testing San Quentin's 1,800 staff members is a good step, but managing this new COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin will be “an uphill battle” for the state corrections department.

“In a facility like that, where it's at near capacity, there may not be a lot of places to put people where they can be successfully isolated from others,” he said.

CDCR said all of the current positive cases are isolated in secure cells.

The state’s Office of the Inspector General is currently looking into the state prison system’s handling of COVID-19, at the request of the Speaker of the Assembly, Anthony Rendon.