COVID-19 outbreaks ignite at 2 Calif. prisons

Systemwide, there are 78 confirmed cases among prison staff and healthcare employees

By Jason Fagone and Megan Cassidy
San Francisco Chronicle

CHINO, Calif. — Outbreaks of COVID-19 have flared up at two crowded California prisons, confirming the worst fears of prisoner families and advocates — and adding fuel to a growing federal court fight over the state prison system’s response to the pandemic.

Forty-four prisoners and 21 staffers have tested positive for the coronavirus at the California Institution for Men in Chino, while 15 prisoners and 11 employees have been infected at the state prison in Los Angeles County, according to figures from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The number of confirmed prisoner cases nearly doubled in Los Angeles and increased more than fivefold at Chino since last week, when prison officials on April 7 reported eight confirmed cases at each facility. Chino has more than 3,431 prisoners and Los Angeles houses 3,187.

Five other prisons in California house a single prisoner who has tested positive: Centinela State Prison in Imperial; California Institution for Women in Corona; the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo; North Kern State Prison in Delano; and the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran.

As of Tuesday, 64 prisoners throughout the system had tested positive and 581 had been tested. Approximately 120,000 prisoners are housed at the state’s 35 institutions.

Staffers at three Bay Area prisons have also tested positive: six at San Quentin State Prison, four at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton and two at a Stockton juvenile facility.

Systemwide, there are 78 confirmed cases among prison staff and healthcare employees.

Jane Dorotik, a 73-year-old prisoner at the California Institution for Women, said in an email that “everyone is squeezed tight in the housing unit,” making it “physically impossible” to maintain 6 feet of physical distance as health officials recommend.

Women at the facility in Corona have become so worried they’re fashioning their own face masks out of scrap material, Dorotik said. In the last few days, though, state prison officials began handing out masks to prisoners, so Dorotik and others now have two.

“We all feel like we are sitting ducks, fearful of becoming dead ducks,” she wrote. “The only real solution to save lives behind bars is to release.”

Vanessa Nelson-Sloane, whose organization Life Support Alliance advocates for prisoners with life sentences, said she has been talking with prisoners, family members and state corrections officials to get a better handle on the outbreaks and response. Prisoners seem to be dealing with the crisis better than their loved ones on the outside, she said.

“They’re worried, they’re panicked,” Nelson-Sloane said of the family members. “They’re really mistrustful of CDCR, which I totally understand.”

But in this case, she added, state prison officials are being “as proactive and transparent as I have ever seen them be.”

During the pandemic, the state has taken some actions to reduce populations in the prison system, suspending intake from county jails and expediting the release of 3,500 prisoners who were within two months of completing their sentences.

Dana Simas, a state corrections spokeswoman, said the total prisoner population has decreased by 6,758 people since March 25. The state has also moved more than 600 prisoners from dormitories to vacant spaces.

“We have taken unprecedented steps to address COVID-19,” Simas said in a statement.

Seven housing units are on quarantine status and two are on isolation status at the Chino facility, Simas said. One unit is on quarantine status at the prison in Los Angeles.

However, attorneys and advocates for prisoners say these measures aren’t nearly enough to achieve physical distancing in crowded facilities, and they are pushing for the release or relocation of thousands more prisoners. Plaintiffs attorneys have focused attention on the plight of those who are especially vulnerable to dying of COVID-19 due to age or existing illnesses.

In late March, attorneys with Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld and the Prison Law Office filed a federal motion calling for emergency steps to protect prisoners. The motion called attention to state prison dormitories where men and women “live, sleep, and bathe within feet — sometimes inches — of each other.”

The outbreak at Chino has grown and spread in the facility’s dorms, according to a federal court filing Tuesday by the Prison Law Office. Of the 600-plus people moved, none were at Chino.

“Even before this outbreak, it was a bad place to live,” said Rita Lomio, a staff attorney with the office who toured Chino’s dorms twice last year. She said she observed blind men being led down cramped hallways, poor ventilation and walkers stashed next to crammed bunks.

The state still has “a window of time” to prevent wider outbreaks by emptying crowded areas and moving vulnerable prisoners, said Bien, who is representing prisoners in multiple lawsuits against the state.

The legal battles are being fought this week before federal judges in California.

State officials have so far resisted the type of sweeping releases sought by Bien and other advocates.

During an April 2 court hearing, two federal judges asked an attorney for the state if California prisons could achieve 6 feet of physical distancing without releasing a large number of prisoners. The attorney answered that he did not know.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office, which is representing the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in its latest court filing that California has taken “far more steps to address the COVID-19 pandemic than any other state.”

The attorneys argued that California prisons should be allowed to “address these important issues without judicial interference.”


©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle

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