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Overcrowding Is Fueling California's Worst Active COVID-19 Prison Outbreak, Advocates Say

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In late November, about 16% of inmates at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran had active cases of the novel coronavirus. (Steve Rhodes/Flickr)

A surge in COVID-19 cases at a Central Valley prison for men is now the largest active outbreak in the California prison system, according to state data.

Nearly 1,000 inmates at the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran have active cases of the virus — nearly all reported within the last two weeks. Three inmates at the facility have also died from COVID-19 complications. Advocates for incarcerated people say the prison’s layout and overcrowding have made it easy for the virus to spread.

A prisoner in Corcoran and his mother.
Leslie Benjamin (right) with her son Dylan (left), who is incarcerated at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran. She says that when she speaks to him she can "hear the hurt and I can hear the fear." (Courtesy of Leslie Benjamin)

"They're living in big rooms with a bunch of other people,” said Sophie Hart, a staff attorney with Berkeley-based Prison Law Office. “You can't stay 6 feet apart from everyone else, and even if you could, you're breathing the same air, using the same toilets and showers. And as soon as there's one positive person in a dorm like that, it spreads.”

The prison is also overcrowded. At roughly 130% capacity with 4,442 men housed there, according to California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data, the facility is well over the number of inmates it was designed to handle. About 22% of those inmates have active cases of COVID-19.

"They don't have the space to take the action they need to take, which would be to separate everybody, and not leave them quarantining in dorms,” Hart said. “It’s too overcrowded for them to do that.”

In a statement, CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas said that masks have been issued to all incarcerated people and staff. She said that space has been identified for inmates to isolate and additional staff have been sent to the prison to assist with screening. About 64% of the population has also been tested in the last 14 days.

But inmate advocates say prison officials haven’t released inmates fast enough to reduce the spread. Since June, California prison officials have released thousands of inmates early. But those population reduction efforts have slowed down in the past few months.  From October to November, 437 people were released, compared to 4,421 released between July and August, according to attorneys with the Prison Law Office.

COVID-19 Spreads Through California Prisons

Advocates for people who are incarcerated in California and their families have called for the release of 65% of the state prison population, and for the end of transfers between prisons, jails and immigration detention centers during the pandemic.

Leslie Benjamin says she has not been able to visit her 39-year-old son, Dylan, at the prison since March, but spoke with him by phone earlier this week.

"It's just [been] constant shuffling. My son got a negative test back and started showing symptoms very shortly after that and was pretty ill for about a week," she said. "The delay in testing is causing a lot of confusion."

Benjamin says her son is feeling better now, but the conditions at the prison haven’t improved. She says according to her son, inmates have only been able to shower every three days, the cells are cold, and meals arrive late in the afternoon.


"His voice doesn't sound as optimistic as he always has been," she said. "I read between the lines, and I can hear the hurt and I can hear the fear, and I've never heard those things in my son before."

Nearly 100 employees at the prison have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 14 days, according to corrections officials. There have been no reported deaths among staff.

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