Potential transfers out of San Quentin raise dire concerns for inmates
A CDCR spokeswoman said they will not transfer anyone into a facility with active COVID-19 cases
By Megan Cassidy and Jason Fagone
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO — State prison officials are planning to transfer dozens of young men to the Valley State Prison in Chowchilla — a facility that is already overcrowded, at 139% of its design capacity, and where 27 prisoners have tested positive for the coronavirus in the past two weeks, according to interviews with multiple incarcerated people.
The preparations come just days after an appeals court ordered that San Quentin's prison population be cut in half after its disastrous coronavirus outbreak this summer.
Meanwhile, San Quentin staff has been ordered to prepare dozens of other men for transfer to different prisons across the state in early November.
The looming transfers have alarmed many people in custody at San Quentin and their advocates, given that it was a botched transfer from Chino that ignited San Quentin's deadly outbreak in the first place. To date, COVID-19 has sickened three-fourths of the population, killed 28 prisoners and one guard, and at its peak amounted to the largest outbreak in the U.S.
A spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told The Chronicle they will not transfer anyone into a facility with active COVID-19 cases, and that prison officials have added enhanced safety guidelines before and after transfers.
But imprisoned people expressed concern after they were told about the transfers in the last several days.
Raiveon Wooden, 24, was told about his mandatory transfer last week. Wooden, who is part of San Quentin's Youth Offender Program, or YOP, said he and his friends are concerned not only about potential infection, but the risk of violence that comes with blending prisoners from different institutions.
"We don't want to die in prison," Wooden said. "They're doing the same thing they did with Chino. Now they're doing it to us."
Incarcerated people who spoke to The Chronicle said the transfers would include all of those participating in the YOP, a program that provides in-prison rehabilitative counseling and education to people up to the age of 25.
Another YOP member, 25-year-old Marquell Stewart, said he's afraid he will catch the virus at Valley State. He wants to stay in his dorm at San Quentin, but says he was told by a prison staffer that he could not refuse the transfer.
"I'm really worried about getting (COVID-19) at this other prison," he said. "I've been disinfecting the floors, I've been using lots of hand sanitizer and I've been social distancing. I just don't understand — why would they ship us to a prison that has more positive cases than we do right now?"
Prison spokeswoman Dana Simas did not provide details on the Youth Offender Program transfers or any others, but confirmed that prison and prison health officials were looking to "potentially resume transfers" of those identified as eligible for programs at other prisons.
"All transfers are still subject to intake and movement restrictions at both the transferring and receiving institution," Simas said in an email. "Transfers will not occur if an institution is closed to intake due to active COVID-19 cases or due to other public health considerations."
Simas said prison health care officials have approved enhanced safety standards for transfers, including mandatory testing timelines before and after the moves.
This month, California's First District Court of Appeals found that prison officials acted with "deliberate indifference" by failing to follow public health guidance that could have beaten back the outbreak.
The three-judge panel referred to the ill-fated transfer in late May, in which 121 men were bused from the coronavirus-ridden California Institution for Men in Chino to San Quentin, which at the time had experienced no positive cases. The men weren't tested for weeks before they were transported, and many were sick upon arrival at San Quentin.
Still, prison officials allowed the Chino men to intermingle with the native San Quentin prisoners, who were housed in open-facing cells with poor ventilation. And they failed to heed the advice UC health experts laid out in an urgent June 15 memo, which called for San Quentin officials to reduce its population by 50% to avoid catastrophe.
Citing heavily from that memo, the appeals court on Oct. 20 elevated its advice into law. The judges stressed, however, that they would leave it to the prisons to decide how to achieve these reductions, either through transfers or expedited releases.
"The objective is simply to make conditions as safe as reasonably possible for those who remain incarcerated at this facility," the judges wrote.
While there are currently no active coronavirus cases among San Quentin's population, health officials are concerned that the close quarters could leave some vulnerable to re-infection, or that more cases could break out among those who have not yet been infected.
While confirmed re-infections are extremely rare, researchers are still trying to understand who is vulnerable to them and how severe those cases may be. In a recent interview, Marin County Health Officer Dr. Matthew Willis noted that most of those who once tested positive at San Quentin are, again, hitting their window of susceptibility.
"I think that this is an environment that, even globally, is unique right now," Willis said. "They're in such a confined, such a defined population of people who have passed out of that interval where they may now be susceptible again, and it's not clear what that susceptibility means."
While the potential transfers are coming just weeks after the appeals court ruling, Simas said they were planned prior to the pandemic and unrelated to the order.
Prison officials have said they disagree with the court's ruling, and they now have 90 days in which to appeal to the state Supreme Court. And the appeals court judges didn't set a deadline to reduce the population, giving prison officials "a lot of options," said Hadar Aviram, a law professor at UC Hastings in San Francisco, who wrote a legal brief supporting the release of San Quentin prisoners.
Aviram said the appeals court judges made a strong case for releases over transfers in their ruling, noting that older incarcerated people were especially vulnerable to the virus and statistically highly unlikely to re-offend if freed.
If prison officials were to hit reduction goals through transfers rather than releases, Aviram said, "it would be a very disappointing thing for them to do but it would not be surprising."
The biggest fear, she added was a repeat of the Chino-to- San Quentin catastrophe.
"They are very far from having the kind of track record where you think this is a viable strategy to keep people healthy," Aviram said. "So people are nervous and they're nervous for good reason."
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