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After a Year of COVID-19 Outbreaks, California Prisons Reckon With Mistakes

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San Quentin State Prison
Staff at San Quentin State Prison process a man for intake in 2012. (Monica Lam/KQED/Center for Investigative Reporting)

One year into the coronavirus pandemic, the impact on California’s prisons has become clear. Confined in close and often crowded quarters, nearly half of everyone incarcerated around the state has become infected — that’s more than 49,000 people.

Large outbreaks and alarming death tolls have ravaged most of the state’s prisons, from San Quentin State Prison in the San Francisco Bay Area to Avenal State Prison in the Central Valley to Donovan Correctional Facility in the south of the state.

With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has said the worst is now behind us. As of March 16, more than 45% of incarcerated people have received their first dose, according to prison health care services.

But a court case that has been brewing for months is keeping the issue in the spotlight. The possibility remains alive that prison officials may still have to take a drastic step: to halve the number of people at San Quentin, which was one of the hardest hit prisons in the state.

A ‘Public Health Disaster’

Last summer, a busload of infected prisoners from a Chino prison were transferred to San Quentin. The men hadn’t been tested for the virus in a timely fashion, nor were they quarantined for observation when they first arrived. Within days, COVID-19 began tearing through San Quentin like wildfire.

“Most of my friends caught COVID, and I know a few people that also passed,” said Adamu Chan, who was incarcerated at San Quentin at the time.

Adamu Chan
Adamu Chan was incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak there last summer. He's been working as a community organizer since his release last fall. (Jim McKee/KQED)

San Quentin is the state’s oldest prison, and its architecture makes it particularly vulnerable to the spread of any kind of infectious disease. Most cell doors aren’t solid, but rather consist of bars that allow air to flow freely. In the main housing block, tier after tier of cells are stacked upon each other with a wide-open atrium stretching from the ground floor to the ceiling several stories above.

The cells themselves are tiny.

“Folks are in 4-by-9 cells, double bunks, so there's two people in a very small cell,” Chan said. “In a cell block, there's about 800 people sharing the same air.”

To date, more than 70% of San Quentin’s inmates have been infected and 28 have died — the highest death toll at any of the state’s prisons. More than 400 correctional staff at San Quentin have also been infected and one has died.

But more than architecture contributed to the virus’ spread, said Marin County Deputy Public Defender Christine O’Hanlon, who represents 249 men at San Quentin who sued to be released.

“We found several what we call 'couplets,' or cell mates, where one of them was positive and the other one tested negative, and they did not separate them. They locked them in the cells together,” O’Hanlon said. “I think the brazen disregard to the concerns of COVID was the thing that shocked me the most.”

O’Hanlon said the conditions of confinement at the prison amount to cruel and unusual punishment — a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Marin County Public Defender Christine O'Hanlon
Marin County Public Defender Christine O'Hanlon points to boxes and boxes of medical records related to the cases of her clients, 249 men incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison who are suing to be released. (Jim McKee/KQED)

Last October, a panel of appellate court judges weighed in, calling what was happening at San Quentin “the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history.” They ordered prison officials to reduce San Quentin’s population by a whopping 50% to allow for proper social distancing and quarantining.

The governor and CDCR immediately appealed that order, saying that deciding which prisoners to release is a complex and time-consuming process and that releases could pose a danger to the community.

In February, the Office of the Inspector General for prisons (OIG) released a report further detailing how the inaction of prison officials caused a “public health disaster” at San Quentin.

The inspector general wrote that testing for the virus was inadequate, that sick or potentially infected people were not immediately quarantined and thorough contact tracing was not conducted.

"The prison’s inability to properly quarantine and isolate incarcerated persons exposed to or infected with COVID-19, along with its practice of allowing staff to work throughout the prison during shifts or on different days, likely caused the virus to spread to multiple areas of the prison," the report said.

CDCR declined to give an interview but responded to the OIG's report with a statement that said, "San Quentin State Prison has made many improvements and already remedied several of the citations .... to keep all those who live and work in our state prisons safe."

Meanwhile, the California Supreme Court instructed the appellate court to consider whether an evidentiary hearing should be held in the matter of San Quentin and the months-old order (on pause because of the appeals process) to cut the prisoner population.

On Feb. 24, as the one-year anniversary of statewide shelter-in-place orders approached, the appellate court decided to move forward with an evidentiary hearing. While the date is still to be determined, it means that the testimony of people — like the formerly incarcerated Chan — will be publicly presented and entered into a public record.

“Prisons don't provide proper health care to folks,” Chan said. “Prisons are filled with largely large populations of elderly folks and people with preexisting conditions. And they are dirty and unsafe.”

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An ‘Unenviable Task’

CDCR has argued that their efforts “are in lockstep with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s] guidance on the management of COVID-19 in correctional facilities,” and that they have taken significant measures to respond to the pandemic, including providing masks, hand sanitizer and soap, and setting aside more space for quarantining and caring for COVID-positive people.

Furthermore, prison officials have said they must juggle the health of inmates with the challenges of maintaining public safety.

“The court failed to give ‘due regard for prison officials’ unenviable task of keeping dangerous men in safe custody under humane conditions,' ” attorneys for the prison system wrote in a November court filing in which they quoted previous court rulings.

Public defender O’Hanlon countered that many of her clients are at low risk for reoffending if released, because they’re older and also suffer from other medical problems.

As of March 16, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has administered vaccines to more than 45% of incarcerated people and more than 26,000 correctional staff.
As of March 16, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has administered vaccines to more than 45% of incarcerated people and more than 26,000 correctional staff. (Courtesy of CDCR/CCHCS)

The state is arguing that a 50% population reduction at San Quentin is no longer necessary now that vaccines have become available and California has prioritized vaccinating incarcerated people. As of March 16, more than 43,000 prisoners and more than 26,000 staff have received first-round vaccines, according to California Correctional Health Care Services.

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But O’Hanlon said there are broader issues at stake, including how the prison system neglects inmate health care in general.

“Our position is that CDCR should not get a pass for the egregious conduct,” she said. “I think they need to be held to answer to what they were doing, why they allowed this to go on.”

More importantly, O'Hanlon said, “They need to be discouraged and deterred from doing this in the future.”

While the upcoming evidentiary hearing will focus solely on what happened at San Quentin, a ruling could set a precedent for other prisons in California that have grappled with severe outbreaks, including the California Institution for Men, where 27 inmates have died from COVID-19, and Avenal State Prison where more than 3,000 people were infected.

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