what you need to know about the Covid-19 crisis in California prisons

<span>Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California is battling a huge coronavirus outbreak in its state prisons, with thousands of inmates in facilities across the region infected.

Advocates and attorneys long warned that living conditions in the overcrowded institutions would prove fertile ground for the virus. Families and rights organizations say the state botched its response to the pandemic, failing to curb the spread of the virus and provide basic care and protections for prisoners.

Here’s what you need to know:

How bad is the crisis?

As of 13 July, the California department of corrections and rehabilitation (CDCR) had reported 6,289 coronavirus cases and 33 deaths among incarcerated people, and 1,243 staff members had tested positive for the virus. Almost 4,000 half of the total cases were listed as “resolved”, bringing the number of active infections to 2,438 .

CDCR reported the first infection of a prisoner in late March. By that time, several prison staffers had already tested positive. The first large outbreaks occurred at the California Institutions for Men and Women (CIM and CIW) in the city of Chino, about an hour’s drive from Los Angeles, but they have since spread across the state. In San Quentin state prison, California’s oldest correctional facility, 1,455 people, or more than one in three inmates, have tested positive, according to the CDCR.

The majority of cases have been concentrated in 10 of CDCR’s 35 facilities:

  • The California Institution for Men

  • California Institute for Women

  • Avenal state prison

  • Los Angeles state prison

  • Chuckawalla Valley state prison

  • San Quentin state prison

  • Corcoran state prisons

  • The California Rehabilitation Center

  • California correctional center

  • California correctional institute

In addition to the risks to incarcerated people, staff, and their families, the outbreaks in prisons in more rural areas are catalyzing concerns about hospital and ICU capacity. As of 10 July, 91 incarcerated people were being treated in outside hospitals, according to CDCR. In new Covid-19 hot spots like Imperial county and Riverside county (where Chuckawalla Valley state prison is located), this combination of community and prison spread threatens to overwhelm local hospital systems.

“We can’t act like prisons don’t exist and people don’t come in and out of them,” said Michael Bien, an attorney who’s been representing inmates in the years-long lawsuit focused on reducing the California prison population. “Many of these prisons are in places where there are no hospital resources and those areas can be overwhelmed very quickly.”


How did it unfold?

As the US reported its first positive Covid-19 cases and states began to ban group gatherings and mandate social distancing in March, criminal justice reform advocates and attorneys began warning that the conditions in many correctional facilities could lead to a rapid spread of the virus.

Many California prisons are filled beyond capacity, with buildings poorly ventilated, tiers that are just a few feet wide, shared bathroom facilities, and dense dormitory-style housing units filled with rows of bunk beds. Social distancing in prison, advocates warned, was near impossible.

Meanwhile, incarcerated people are at higher risk of physical and mental health challenges than the general public, according to the US Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, while inmates have long complained about substandard care and few correctional facilities are equipped to address the specific health needs of people over 50.

At the end of May, for example, 121 prisoners who were considered at high- risk of infection were transferred from CIM to San Quentin and 66 were transferred to Corcoran. Before the transfer, San Quentin had zero positive cases and Corcoran had one.

Within three weeks of the transfer, the prisons had nearly 500 and 150 cases respectively. Then in June, inmates from San Quentin were sent to the California correctional center (CCC) in Lassen County. Within a week, cases in CCC shot from zero to 210.

The transfers, Assemblyman Marc Levine said at a state senate hearing, were “the worst prison health screw-up in state history”.

The California governor, Gavin Newsom, has acknowledged that the transfer was a catalyst for the outbreaks and says he is working with prison officials and healthcare experts to decrease the populations in San Quentin and throughout the California prison system.

“It’s been incredibly frustrating that we had someone make the decision to transfer a few patients from one prison – Chino – into San Quentin and that decision created the chain of events that we’re now addressing,” Newsom said during a 9 July news conference.

“All of us are now accountable to addressing this issue in a forthright manner.”

What has been the impact within prisons?

CDCR has implemented several efforts to enforce social distancing measures and limit the spread of the virus within facilities. It cancelled all visitation to prisons and began the expedited parole of almost 3,500 people with less than 30 days on their sentences. It curbed the movement of prisoners within facilities. And it mandated face masks for correctional officers and suspended intake from county jails on three occasions.

<span class="element-image__caption">The California Institution For Men in Chino, California.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Ed Crisostomo/AP</span>
The California Institution For Men in Chino, California. Photograph: Ed Crisostomo/AP

But inmates, correctional officers, and prison medical personnel have all complained about the lack of protective and hygiene supplies such as masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and soap.

This situation is exceptionally worrisome for those with a high risk of complications if they develop Covid-19. Almost 40{50531db320f8e8a316d79d6a285e47c71b6e4f6739df32858cb86474d7e720e9} of CDCR inmates have at least one condition – be it hypertension, cancer, or diabetes – that makes them vulnerable to severe illness from Covid-19, according to court filings.

Some prisoners who have tested positive say they feel they’re being punished. “This shit is driving me insane!” Rashea Gianunzio’s husband, who contracted Covid-19 in Corcoran, wrote in early June. “I feel like I’m being punished and haven’t been outside in three weeks and haven’t had fresh air in what feels like forever. I think I’m losing my mind.”

Many prisoners have said the uncertainty around transfers, worries about being put in lockdown and the lack of communication with loved ones is adding to the existing stress of long-term incarceration.

“I’ve only been able to talk to my family through unofficial means, and I didn’t have it in me to tell them that I was being transferred,” a young man incarcerated in San Quentin told the Guardian. He requested anonymity for fear of being punished for speaking to the press and was one of 50 men scheduled to be transferred from San Quentin to North Kern state prison in Delano, California. “The fact that the prison administration would juggle my body from place to place rather than set me free does something to my soul and makes me feel like I don’t have value,” he added.

Prison staff have complained they are exhausted. “Our staff are being put into a dangerous position and are being mandated and drafted to work additional shifts day after day until we are physically and emotionally exhausted,” said Karen Franklin, a nurse in San Quentin, during a 1 July senate hearing.

“We sleep in our cars because we know that we are not in the position to safely drive. And when we inform our supervisors of our exhaustion we are threatened with advert actions,” she said.

On 1 June, about 20 people began a hunger strike in protest of the poor conditions inside San Quentin.

And what about outside?

Many family members of people who have contracted Covid-19 in prison are deeply concerned. Several families report being unable to connect with prison leadership for status updates on their loved ones and many now rely on letters for updates.

“No one from the prison ever called me about my son,” said Donella Hodges, whose 31-year old son has been incarcerated in Corcoran since 2013 and told his mother about his 7 June Covid-19 diagnosis in a letter. “When he told me that he tested positive, I began to call the counselors, the supervisors, and the chaplain. Everybody started hanging up in my face,” she said.

Several families have formed support groups on social media to share information, offer words of encouragement, and lambast the state’s response to Covid-19 inside its prisons.

<span class="element-image__caption">An inmate walks to his cell as corrections officers patrol at San Quentin in 2016.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images</span>
An inmate walks to his cell as corrections officers patrol at San Quentin in 2016. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“You hear about these horrors in prison and now it’s happening to us,” said Emelia O’Brien, whose husband, Sean O’Brien, is serving a life sentence in Corcoran and tested positive for Covid-19 in early June. “Having a person that you love in prison and not being able to do anything to help them is a helpless feeling because you know that they’re in pain and they’re suffering.”

What can the state do to ease the crisis?

Since the first positive cases were reported, local legislators and public health officials have been calling on Newsom to ease the density in the state’s overpopulated prisons by granting more clemencies and creating a pathway for mass releases that would prioritize inmates over 60 and those with pre-existing conditions.

“Newsom doesn’t have some magic wand that he could use to completely prevent anyone in prison from contracting Covid, but there’s so much stuff he could have done in the short and long term,” said Anoop Prasad, a staff attorney with Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, a civil rights and legal advocacy organization.

“Newsom and the CDCR need to depopulate our prisons safely because Covid is not going away anytime soon and there’s no long term plan to deal with this,” he continued, echoing the position of advocacy groups across the state.

Since early March, CDCR has reduced its population by more than 8,000 people through coronavirus-induced expedited paroles and the suspension of transfers from county jails. And on 16 June, it announced an estimated 3,500 prisoners would be eligible for a program that would allow people with 180 days or less left on their sentences to serve the remaining time in “community supervision”. It is unclear, however, how many inmates will meet all of the criteria for relief.

Still, as of 10 June, 30 of 35 California correctional institutions are filled over capacity, according to recent court filings. And organizers and lawyers have decried the fact that the measures have left out the majority of state inmates over 65 years of age, since anyone in prison for a violent or serious felony, domestic violence, or who would have to register as a sex offender upon release did not qualify for the initial rounds of relief. They note that according to a 2017 United States Sentencing Commission report that evaluated this elderly population in federal prisons, the reincarceration rate was less than 10{50531db320f8e8a316d79d6a285e47c71b6e4f6739df32858cb86474d7e720e9} and that many have families who are ready to care for them.

Related: ‘People are sick all around me’: inside the coronavirus catastrophe in California prisons

“The narrative about violent crime has been used to prevent the possibility of saving lives,” said Emily Harris, policy director for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “This is the moment that those who have been working to get people out of prison for years have feared. These outbreaks reinforce why the path that California has taken – to lock people up – is not the answer to public safety, health or our wellbeing.”

In a late March response to an emergency motion calling for the expedited release of thousand of incarcerated people, the state said it could not enact mass releases due to “the impact on already strained communities [where] community hospitals, social services and safety nets and other infrastructure are highly stressed, struggling mightily to address the current needs of the community”.

In addition, Newsom has pointed at the issue of adequate post-release housing as a factor that makes mass releases difficult.

On 10 July, prison officials announced three initiatives that they say will lead to the release of up to 8,000 people by the end of August.

The first effort expands upon a program that allows people with 180 days or fewer on their sentences to serve the remaining time in home confinement. This program now includes people who are incarcerated for what the state describes as serious felonies.

The second move is the immediate review of cases of those incarcerated at eight prisons with large “high-risk” populations.

Finally, the state will launch a one-time initiative wherein almost 95{50531db320f8e8a316d79d6a285e47c71b6e4f6739df32858cb86474d7e720e9} of the prison population will receive a credit shortening their sentences by three months. For 3,100 people, the credit will allow their release when the program begins on 1 August.