Released prison inmate brings COVID-19 to an unsuspecting county

The 500-mile journey an inmate made after early release illustrates the dangers the coronavirus presents to communities


Mendocino County took early and extensive measures to protect its residents from community spread of the coronavirus. Public officials in the Northern California community were visibly upset on April 17, however, as they described the circumstances leading up to only the fifth confirmed case of COVID-19, imported by a recently released inmate from a state prison located over 500 miles away.

Mendocino County’s public health officer announced the new confirmed case of COVID-19 in the county, although the man who tested positive for COVID-19 is not a resident of the rural community.

Just nine days prior to the positive test confirmation, the man, who was not named by officials, was released from the California Institution for Men in Chino. The release was part of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Expedited Release program rolled out by Governor Gavin Newsom’s office in March. Chino is an approximately eight-hour drive south of Ukiah, California, where the released inmate traveled to stay with a relative. That city had not seen any confirmed cases of the coronavirus until the test results came back on April 17.

Governor Gavin Newsom's expedited release program called for the early release of close to 3,500 inmates statewide.
Governor Gavin Newsom's expedited release program called for the early release of close to 3,500 inmates statewide. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Mendocino County Sheriff Matthew Kendall reported at an online press briefing on April 17 that he only learned of the released inmate’s presence in the county on April 16. Based on communications between Sheriff Kendall and Stanislaus County Sheriff Jeff Dirkse, Kendall learned the inmate had been ordered upon his release from Chino to turn himself into the Stanislaus County Probation office, which is just over 200 miles away from Ukiah. The released inmate failed to do so, checking in via phone from Ukiah, days later.

Mendocino County Probation Chief Izen Locatelli managed to locate the released inmate with the help of his counterpart in Stanislaus and worked with local public health officials to expedite COVID-19 testing. This step, in Locatelli’s opinion, should be taken by CDCR prior to releasing inmates early from state prisons. The California Institution for Men, to date, houses the greatest number of California state prison inmates who have tested positive for the virus. According to the CDCR’s website, 53 of the 78 inmates tested at the facility were confirmed to have COVID-19 as of April 17.

Further troubling to Mendocino County officials is the timeline associated with the inmate who ended up in Ukiah. A memo reportedly sent by CDCR to the Stanislaus County Probation Department advised that the inmate in question had confirmed contact with COVID-19 infection within the California Institution for Men and had been placed in a 14-day quarantine on April 7. The inmate was released the following day and made his way to Ukiah.

“It is unfortunate (that) between his release and when we found out about it, that six days had elapsed, and we can’t fix,” said Chief Locatelli.

Locatelli and Ukiah Police Chief Justin Wyatt both expressed concerns over local health issues caused by poor decisions made at the state level. Locatelli is hopeful that the communications taking place currently between the county and state officials as a result of the imported coronavirus case will help address local concerns regarding which inmates are released from state prisons.

According to CDCR Press Secretary Dana Simas, “(CDCR) cannot legally hold anyone past a regularly scheduled release date.” This matter seems to have been further complicated by the state’s mandate to create more space in prisons and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Simas on Friday advised that the expedited release plan set forth by Governor Gavin Newsom was completed on April 13. The plan had called for the early release of close to 3,500 inmates statewide.

Regarding CDCR’s guidelines for testing inmates before release, Simas advised Friday that, “Immediately before release, all inmates are screened for symptoms of influenza-like illness including COVID-19.” The screenings according to Simas include questionnaires, temperature checks and the clinical judgments of health care staff, which ultimately decide as to whether an inmate needs to be held for further observation before release.

Sheriff Kendall expressed “extreme concern” over the lack of information he received related to the inmate’s release and subsequent arrival in Mendocino County. Regarding the manner in which CDCR is releasing inmates during the COID-19 pandemic, the sheriff said, “I’m afraid that just turning people loose at the door and saying, ‘go about your way’ is kind of akin to throwing sparks in the dry grass.”

Statewide, many local county jails are under similar orders from courts to reduce their inmate populations and help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. While the legislature and courts prescribe these releases, the responsibility by the justice system to keep residents safe from offenders after they are released into a community has recently taken on an additional dimension, one that may require a higher level of communication from the state prison system to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus.             

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