Officials: Calif. prison staff showed 'indifference' to masks

Prison employees weren't complying with mask rules at 23 of the 34 prisons inspectors visited


By Wes Venteicher
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. —California prisons have done little to enforce mask requirements amid a COVID-19 outbreak that has killed 10 prison employees and 76 inmates, according to a watchdog report published Monday.

The prison system provided hundreds of thousands of masks and told everyone to wear them, but workers and inmates often don't wear them or don't wear them properly, according to the report, published by the prison system's Office of the Inspector General.

Even healthcare workers at the prison weren't wearing masks correctly, the report says.
Even healthcare workers at the prison weren't wearing masks correctly, the report says. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Rarely do workers face consequences for not wearing masks, and when they do, it's almost always a verbal warning, according to the report.

Inspector General Roy Wesley investigated mask-wearing as part of a broader review of the prison system's handling of the pandemic requested by House Speaker Anthony Rendon, D- Lakewood.

Prison workers weren't complying with mask rules at 23 of the 34 prisons inspectors visited, the report says.

Employees at North Kern State Prison displayed "indifference" to the rules even after a co-worker had just died from COVID-19, according to the report.

"With the staff member's tragic death as a backdrop to our inspection, we expected departmental staff to be vigilant about taking all appropriate precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19," the report says. "Instead, we saw the opposite: a significant number of staff members seemed cavalier about the threat of the virus and displayed that attitude by failing to adhere to the face covering policy.

Even health care workers at the prison weren't wearing masks correctly, the report says.

San Quentin State Prison suffered one of the worst outbreaks in the system, with thousands of infections, 28 inmate deaths and a correctional officer's death. Yet in a worker survey, 37% of respondents said they had seen workers or inmates not wearing masks.

The prison has taken just one disciplinary action related to masks or physical distancing, "an instance of written counseling," the report said.

"The department's relaxed requirements appeared to unnecessarily increase the risk of COVID-19's spread among the staff and incarcerated population," the report says.

Corrections department Secretary Kathleen Allison provided a three-paragraph written response to the report.

"The department recognizes its responsibility to clearly communicate the importance of adhering to physical distancing and face covering protocol in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among staff and the incarcerated population," Allison said in the response. "Further, the department will continue its effort to consistently enforce those policies and procedures."

The corrections department provided about 750,000 cloth masks made by the California Prison Industry Authority to its institutions in early April, the report said. The department ordered everyone to wear them on April 16.

From Feb. 1 to Sept. 2, prison supervisors and managers took just 29 disciplinary actions for noncompliance, and most were verbal, according to the report. Prison officials requested formal investigations or disciplinary actions for misconduct related to mask-wearing or physical distancing for just seven of the department's roughly 63,000 staff members, the report says.

In June, the department relaxed its mask requirements to allow workers and inmates to take off their masks when they were outside and six feet or more apart.

Corrections department spokeswoman Dana Simas said in an email that the department coordinated with the Department of Public Health to develop its mask guidelines, and that it has sent "millions of pieces of personal protective equipment" to institutions around the state to help them comply with the rules.

"In June, based on public health guidance, CDCR modified the mandate to state that those who work alone in an office or a tower do not need to wear a mask while in their own workspace," Simas said.

On July 1, former CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz told the Legislature that the department was enforcing its mask requirements, and the department sent out a memo that day reminding staff to wear masks. Diaz retired Oct. 1.

Enforcement patterns didn't change significantly after the July 1 memo, according to inspectors' in-depth reviews of five facilities — San Quentin, the California Institution for Men, the California Institution for Women, the California Correctional Healthcare Facility and California State Prison, Los Angeles County.

"The department's actions have not closely matched its public statements and directive to prison management," the report says.

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(c)2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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