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1st Calif. inmate dies from COVID-19

An inmate at the California Institution for Men died from COVID-19 complications, marking the state’s first fatality among its 120,000 prisoners

By Megan Cassidy
San Francisco Chronicle

CHINO, Calif. — An inmate at the California Institution for Men in Southern California died from what appears to be complications from COVID-19, prison officials said Sunday, marking the state’s first coronavirus fatality among its 120,000 prisoners.

Hours earlier, San Francisco Sheriff Paul Miyamoto announced that a second inmate at a San Francisco jail has tested positive for the coronavirus. The news comes three days after another inmate was the first to test positive. Neither is showing symptoms of the virus and both were being isolated in County Jail #2.

The troubling milestones come as jails and prisons continue to adopt increasingly sweeping measures to beat back what could be disastrous outbreaks inside the tight confines of incarceration.

Miyamoto said Sunday that new protocol to test every inmate for the virus, at booking, may have helped stave off further spread. Jail Health Services, a section of the Department of Public Health, started the policy April 12.

“This enables Jail Health Services to identify asymptomatic people who are carrying the virus and keep them isolated from the general population until they test negative or are released from jail,” Miyamoto said.

Both inmates are isolated and housed in a dedicated pod in County Jail #2, which can hold up to 21% of the in-custody population. The Sheriff’s Office has been isolating newly arrested people in the facility since March 18, a day after San Francisco issued the shelter-in-place health order.

State prison officials say they have taken unprecedented steps to slow the spread of the coronavirus at their facilities, including reducing the prison population by more than 6,000 people and moving hundreds more from dormitories to vacant spaces.

Still, two sizable outbreaks flared up at Southern California facilities, with 59 confirmed cases at California Institution for Men in Chino (San Bernardino County) — including the man who died — and 50 confirmed cases at the Los Angeles County prison.

As of Sunday evening, there were 115 prisoners who had tested positive for the virus at the state’s 35 facilities.

Bay Area jails also have taken major steps to reduce jail populations to slow the spread of the virus. San Francisco’s jail population was at a historic low Sunday with 725 people in custody, down 36% from the average population in January.

Across the bay, a spike in coronavirus cases at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin appears to be leveling off. There have been 31 inmates who tested positive for the virus, 15 of whom have recovered and one who has been released, according to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office.

By Sunday afternoon, there were no new cases reported in the previous 24 hours.

Judicial officials in Alameda County have also released hundreds of people in the past few weeks to stave off an outbreak in closely confined quarters. The Santa Rita Jail population fell by more than 800 in the past several weeks, from 2,597 on March 1 to 1,763 on Sunday.

Public defenders in both San Francisco and Alameda counties have pointed to the coronavirus cases behind bars as grounds to release inmates.


©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle

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