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As Coronavirus Cases Surge at San Quentin, Lawmakers Demand an Explanation

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San Quentin State Prison is experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19 cases amongst the staff and inmate population. San Quentin had zero cases of COVID-19 prior to a May 30 transfer of inmates from a Southern California facility that had hundreds of active cases. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The confirmed cases of COVID-19 in San Quentin State Prison have been increasing at a dizzying rate. Over the course of one week, 46 confirmed cases among inmates ballooned to more than 400 in the state’s oldest prison, which houses almost 4,000 people. So far, at least two inmates have been transported to Marin hospitals for treatment.

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Last week, San Quentin completed testing mandated by a federal judge. An additional 43 staff members are so far confirmed to have tested positive for the virus. Among the inmate population, there were zero reported cases one month ago.

After a controversial transfer of over 100 inmates, confirmed cases in the facility have risen exponentially. The transfer has now been folded into a longstanding and evolving lawsuit over medical care in the state prison system.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar, who’s presiding over that case, called the action a “significant failure of policy and planning,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Steven Fama, a staff attorney for the Prison Law Office representing the plaintiffs in the suit, said that the judge became emotional during Friday’s hearing, saying the current situation at the prison “broke (his) heart.”

Now, activists, lawmakers and the families of those incarcerated at the prison are calling on the state to explain how this happened, and stop the spread.


The Beginning of the Outbreak

The outbreak at San Quentin began in late May when, in order to quell a separate outbreak at the California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino, 121 medically vulnerable people were transferred from there to San Quentin. After being bused together for hours, some tested positive for the virus upon arrival and were then isolated. A Chronicle investigation found that some CIM inmates were not tested for up to a month before they were transferred to San Quentin and Corcoran, another state prison.

At least part of the outbreak, according to Fama, can be traced to South Block, or ‘reception’ — the building at the front of the prison where men are processed before they enter the general population. He says men transferred from CIM were housed there with other people waiting to enter the general population. According to data from the California Correctional Health Care Services, South Block is now one of the areas with the largest number of cases.

The other area seeing an increase in cases is East Block, where condemned inmates are housed. And at least one case has been confirmed in North Block.

While it is not known how the virus spread to those other areas of the prison, the occurrence in North Block is particularly worrying, according to Fama.

“Quarters are even tighter than on a cruise ship,” he said. “And the patient characteristics approach that of a skilled nursing facility, in terms of age and medical condition.”

Fama also said that at the start of the outbreak, inmates were housed in isolation in the Adjustment Center, which has closed doors that would lessen possible transmission. Since then, Fama said, the approximately 100 units have all been filled, and now people are being held in their cells, sometimes with their cellmates.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), the institution has completed testing of about 1,332 inmates, and results are coming in from testing done about four days before. CDCR has not said whether or not they will test all the inmates at the prison.

Marin Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis said the exponential spread of the virus is concerning.

“If a small fraction of those cases end up needing to be hospitalized, that can be significant for hospitals in the region,” he said.

Outbreak Raises ‘Serious Questions’ About Prison Management

As reports emerge about surging numbers, incarcerated people and their families say they have been left mostly in the dark about how the situation is being handled.

Vanessa Silva said she has been checking the CDCR patient tracker constantly these past two weeks. Her fiancé, Floyd, is serving a sentence of 25 years to life.

She said watching San Quentin move from the prison with the seventh-most cases, to third-most over the weekend, made her extremely anxious.

“Are they safe? How do they practice social distance? Do they have proper PPE for that? [Does CDCR] even care if they contracted the virus? And then what is protocol after that for them?” Silva asked.

Activists and attorneys for prisoners are calling on CDCR to release medically vulnerable people at a large scale. The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights has started a campaign called #StopSanQuentinOutbreak, which along with calling for the release, is demanding ongoing testing of the entire prison population, relegation of prison staff to specific areas and free hygiene products.

Although no lawmakers or public health officials have expressed support for large-scale release, a growing number are calling for accountability from the state.

State Assemblymember Marc Levine, who represents the North Bay Area where the prison is located, anticipates San Quentin will likely see “hundreds” more cases. He also said transfer from CIM was “botched,” and called on CDCR to create an incident command station to deal with the outbreak. The department has since created such a station.

Levine is now calling for the person in charge of managing this crisis within the CDCR to step down, and says Gov. Gavin Newsom should immediately appoint an epidemiologist to address the outbreak.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee, plans to hold an oversight hearing next Wednesday. She says the outbreak at San Quentin raises “serious questions” about the Department of Corrections’ management.

“You do not move people from a facility where the virus is widespread,” she said. “You do not move them without immediate testing prior to the moving so that you're not moving anyone with an active infection.”

“Clearly, something went wrong here,” said State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who is also a member of the Public Safety Committee. “And CDCR needs enhanced protocols in terms of testing and monitoring when someone is being transferred to another facility. Clearly, that is not happening systematically.”

Newsom’s office referred to CDCR when asked for a comment.

CDCR said in a statement that on July 1, as part of its’ Community Supervision Program, it will release eligible inmates who have 180 days or less to serve on their sentences. Those inmates will spend the remaining time under supervision at home.

That response isn’t enough for Fama. He says CDCR’s solution is insufficient because it’s the at-risk community — not those with shorter sentences — that need to be released.

“I believe that is what's necessary to reduce the incidence or risk of harm and death from COVID-19,” he said.

The next federal hearing is set to take place July 2nd, and will be livestreamed.

KQED’s Shannon Lin contributed reporting to this story.


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