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California Could Release 8,000 State Prisoners by End of August to Slow Coronavirus Outbreaks

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An aerial view of San Quentin State Prison on July 08, 2020, where more than 1,300 prisoners are currently infected with the coronavirus, and at least seven have died — one of the largest single outbreaks in the nation. An emergency care facility was erected on the baseball field to treat those who have been infected. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Roughly 8,000 people incarcerated in state prisons in California could be eligible for early release by the end of August, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced Friday.

The decision comes amid a devastating COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin State Prison and other facilities. Gov. Gavin Newsom and prison officials have faced mounting pressure from advocates, lawmakers and federal judges to slow the spread of the virus by quickly downsizing the state's immense prison population to better enable physical distancing and quarantine efforts.

The proposed reduction would be in addition to the 10,000 incarcerated people who have already been released from California prisons since the start of the pandemic, CDCR said.

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"These actions are taken to provide for the health and safety of the incarcerated population and staff," CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz said in a statement. “We aim to implement these decompression measures in a way that aligns both public health and public safety."

Across the state's massive network of prisons, 2,319 incarcerated people were confirmed to have active cases of the virus as of Friday afternoon, and at least 31 had died, according to the department, which also reported 719 active cases among prison staffers.

"The prisoners have so little agency over their own lives and they've really been exposed to this deadly disease through no fault of their own," said Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael.

San Quentin, in Levine's district, has been the site of the worst outbreak, where there are currently 1,336 active cases of the virus and at least seven have died.

The prison had remained untouched by the virus until the end of May, when 121 prisoners were transferred from the California Institution for Men in Chino, and cases quickly skyrocketed. Since then, nearly 1,700 people inside the Marin County facility have cumulatively contracted the virus, making it one of the largest single outbreaks in the country and sparking outrage among advocates and public officials.

"It's been incredibly frustrating that we had someone make the decision to transfer a few patients from one prison — Chino — into San Quentin," Newsom said Thursday during a press briefing. "And that decision created the chain of events that we are now addressing and dealing with. I'm not here to sugarcoat that. I'm not here to scapegoat that. All of us are now accountable to addressing this issue and doing so in a forthright manner, and that's precisely what we're doing."

Those eligible for the first round of early release must have 180 days or less to serve on their sentences and be considered at low-risk of violent behavior, part of a selection process that Newsom promised would be "very methodical." Prisoners currently serving time for any violent crime — including domestic violence — or for an offense that requires registration as a sex offender will not be eligible.

CDCR officials said about 4,800 people — of the 8,000-reduction target — could be eligible for release as soon as the end of July.


The department also plans to consider, on a rolling basis, those who have a year or less to serve and are housed in one of the eight prisons where there are large numbers of high-risk patients, including California Institution for Men, the California Medical Facility and San Quentin State Prison.

Additionally, individuals who are 30 and over, and who meet the eligibility criteria, will be immediately considered for release. Those who are 29 or younger but otherwise eligible will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, prison officials said.

On Thursday night, prison officials also announced that that they would grant 12 weeks of credit to every prisoner eligible for release who had not been found guilty of a serious rule violation between March 1 and July 5, which could benefit as many 108,000 people.

"I think it's very positive news," said Donald Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office. "The prison system has been overcrowded for decades, and the more they release people safely, the better for the community. There's little risk to the public because these people are going to get out anyway shortly and it'll make the community and the prison much safer because there's less risk of people getting (infected) and spreading it into the community."

KQED's Scott Shafer contributed additional reporting.

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