Health officials are working to keep a fast-moving COVID-19 outbreak at California's San Quentin State Prison from spreading into the broader Bay Area community. San Quentin State Prison opened in 1852 and is California's oldest penitentiary. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
As prison staff treated inmates with COVID-19 in tents in a courtyard at San Quentin State Prison, state lawmakers in Sacramento grilled prison leaders Wednesday on how the facility, which had no known cases in May, became the site of the largest outbreak of the coronavirus in California — and how they plan to prevent further spread of the virus.
In early June, an inmate who had been transferred to the Marin prison tested positive for COVID-19. Now, more than 1,000 people incarcerated there have tested positive for the virus and one inmate has died.
“The now major outbreak at San Quentin threatens the incarcerated people and staff there, but also Bay Area hospitals and residents,” said state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who called for the informational hearing before the senate public safety committee on the spreading COVID-19 crisis in prisons. “The decision to transfer incarcerated people from a prison with one of the worst outbreaks — Chino — to San Quentin, which at that point had no known cases, raises significant questions about CDCR’s handling of this crisis.”
Inadequate Prisoner Testing
Health care in California’s prisons has been under the control of a federal court for nearly two decades in the wake of a lawsuit over a rash of preventable deaths in the 1990s.
In late May, the court-appointed receiver in charge of making improvements to inmate health care approved the transfer of 121 inmates from the California Institution for Men (CIM) in San Bernardino County — which, at the time, had the largest outbreak of any prison in the state — to San Quentin.
The transfer of medically vulnerable inmates was carried out “with the goal to save lives,” receiver Clark Kelso testified Wednesday, because those inmates had underlying health issues that could increase their risk of dying if they caught the virus.
All of the transferred inmates had previously tested negative for the virus, but after they arrived at San Quentin, 25 of them tested positive, according to Kelso.
“In many cases the tests were two, three and, in some cases, four weeks old — far too old to be a reliable indicator for the absence of COVID,” Kelso said.
Kelso had established protocols that required a negative coronavirus test result before an inmate could be transferred from one prison to another. But the protocols did not state how recent those test results needed to be.
The buses transferring inmates from CIM also dropped off 66 men at Corcoran State Prison — two of whom subsequently tested positive for COVID-19, said Kelso.
“We can do better and I know we will do better,” Corrections Secretary Ralph Diaz told the committee. “Protecting the health and safety of all individuals and institutions, that's always been and will remain a top priority.”
Diaz pointed to some of the measures prison officials took to contain the virus, including suspending visitation, halting intake from county jails and releasing 3500 inmates a few months early.
As of Wednesday, 4,983 inmates in prisons throughout the state had been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 22 inmates have died, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation website. The June 24 death of an inmate at San Quentin has been confirmed by Marin County health officials but was not included in the agency's total.
No Testing Required for Prison Staff
While San Quentin’s outbreak appears to stem from a transfer of inmates, in fact, employees going in and out of prisons are “the main vector for spreading COVID-19,” Kelso has said.
From the beginning of the pandemic until June, staff were not required to be tested for the virus.
At Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Riverside County more than 1,000 incarcerated men have come down with the virus, and two have died.
Prisoner rights advocate Philip Melendez said a childhood friend serving a sentence there got sick in June.
“He told me, ‘They're not even testing the correctional officers that come in,’” Melendez said. “These outbreaks are still happening due to staff coming in and out — prison staff, medical staff, whoever is working in the prison.”
Currently, testing of staff at most state prisons is voluntary, administered by outside medical providers, and it is up to employees to report a positive result.
Since March, the CDCR has screened employees by checking for symptoms, according to a memorandum.
After the outbreak emerged at San Quentin, a federal judge ordered the state to test all staff at the prison and at Corcoran, the other prison where inmates from CIM were transferred.
At the hearing Wednesday, CDCR’s Diaz testified that statewide, more than 13,200 prison employees have been tested, although those results were not reflected on the agency's tracker.
Diaz told lawmakers CDCR is working with the state health department to develop a comprehensive staff-testing plan that will eventually involve ongoing testing at all institutions.
“We are moving forward aggressively,” he said.
Health Officials Could Have Ordered Tests Months Ago
Skinner said that mandatory testing should have been in place much earlier, and she rebuked state Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly for not intervening early in the pandemic in prisons.
“This is a population that's in custody and the people that deal with them are staff of the state,” Skinner said. “The testing could have been done, and could have been mandated. The wearing of masks could have been mandated — all of the things that our counties are telling the rest of us.”
“There is no dispute that more could be and should be done,” Ghaly responded. “I would hesitate to leave the committee with the impression that I or any of us believe that the response has been satisfactory.”
State health officials have set up an incident command center at San Quentin.
Ghaly told lawmakers they will try to do the same at other prisons.
The California Correctional Peace Officers Association supports testing for its 30,000 members.
Union President Glen Stailey told lawmakers correctional officers are experiencing “increased stress and anxiety at work” and criticized prison leaders for issuing conflicting and confusing guidelines that created “dysfunction and outright failure” at some institutions.
The union’s support is contingent on testing being offered during an employee’s shift at the prison. The union is also asking that officers who test positive or exhibit symptoms be placed on administrative leave and their identities and medical status protected.
Inmates Bear Brunt of Virus’ Impact
On April 15, CDCR issued guidance that required employees to wear masks.
Even so, many inmates have complained to advocates that some employees pulled the masks down over their chins or refused to wear them.
“People were expressing a ton of concern about the guards not wearing masks, being totally callous about the risk,” said Colby Lenz, an advocate for female and transgender inmates at the California Institution for Women.
The first two women inmates there who tested positive for the virus held prison jobs and were manufacturing masks, in close contact with staff members who are believed to have also worked at the nearby California Institution for Men, where almost 900 people have tested positive for the virus and 16 have died.
“They were considered essential workers,” Lenz said. “They were working extremely long hours, seven days a week, 12 hours a day, is what we were hearing.”
At the end of their shifts, the women would return to their housing units, Lenz said.
April Harris, 44, inhabits a cell directly across from one of those women and got sick too.
“They came to my door and told me that I was positive for the coronavirus and they moved me to isolation,” Harris said.
She said she was kept in solitary confinement for more than a month with a constant cough and called it the worst experience in her 26 years in prison.
Harris said her work cleaning the prison as a porter put her in close contact with staff and also with all the surfaces used by other inmates.
“I had way too much exposure,” Harris said. “My job is to clean the showers, clean the toilets, clean the floor, clean the phone and sweep and mop and spray and wipe.”
The three other dormitory porters in Harris’ unit were also among the more than 160 women at the prison who tested positive for COVID-19.