Review: 1 in 4 Calif. prison employees got COVID-19

Twenty-six employees have died and the virus has torpedoed morale, according to corrections data and employee interviews


By Wes Venteicher and Jason Pohl
The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — So many people in California's prisons have been infected with COVID-19 that at least seven of the institutions have crossed a threshold for herd immunity, a Sacramento Bee review of infection data found.

More than 70% of inmates have tested positive for the illness at the seven prisons, enough to minimize the potential for further spread, experts say.

Data suggests the worst of the pandemic is over inside the state's prisons, and that risks of the institutions spreading the virus to communities may be receding.
Data suggests the worst of the pandemic is over inside the state's prisons, and that risks of the institutions spreading the virus to communities may be receding. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

And more than 60% have tested positive at seven other institutions, falling just short of the threshold. The infection rates don't include vaccinations, which likely have pushed more of the state's 35 prisons into herd immunity territory.

The figures show the extent of the pandemic's sweep through the state's prisons, where one in four employees and half of inmates have tested positive since the first California inmate came down with COVID-19 on March 22. Twenty-six employees and 212 inmates have died and the virus has torpedoed morale, according to corrections data and employee interviews.

"I had eight people die that I worked with over the last couple years, and it wasn't from anything but covid, so that's kind of a rough part of it," said Garrett Smith, 54, a recently retired correctional officer who worked at California Health Care Facility in Stockton.

At least two outbreaks — at San Quentin State Prison and California State Prison, Corcoran — resulted from transfers of infected inmates. But most of the worst outbreaks occurred when infections were surging around the U.S. in November and December, suggesting employees carried the virus into the prisons where it took hold and spread.

Rates of infection have ranged from 10% at Northern California's remote Pelican Bay State Prison to 100% at the California Rehabilitation Center in Riverside County.

Active infections have dropped to their lowest levels since April of last year, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Dana Simas said in an email.

The data suggest the worst of the pandemic is over inside the state's prisons, and that risks of the institutions spreading the virus to communities — particularly in rural areas — may be receding.

Simas said the prison system faced universal hurdles related to testing and obtaining safety equipment and the unique challenges of running a 24/7 operation involving hundreds of thousands of people and their loved ones. She said the corrections department and California Correctional Health Care Services have "been strongly committed to responding" to the emergency and to protecting employees and inmates.

The department now tests widely and provides masks and safety equipment, Simas said. Early releases of low-level inmates and those near the end of their sentences have reduced the prison population to its lowest level in 30 years.

Prison jobs in a pandemic

Prison employees trailed only hospital employees and nursing home workers in serious illnesses and deaths that employers reported to state workplace oversight agency Cal/ OSHA.

Prisons accounted for about 70 Cal/ OSHA reports related to COVID-19, according to the data. About half of the infections were determined to have been contracted on the job.

When employees have died, their surviving coworkers haven't been able to honor them with funerals due to coronavirus restrictions, making the losses even harder, Smith said.

Smith and an employee who works at High Desert State Prison in Lassen County, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said the working conditions have driven many employees to end their prison careers.

Overall, employment at the state's prison agencies dropped by 1,937 people from March 2020 to February of this year, when the agencies employed 60,381 people, according to employment figures.

Simas, the corrections department spokeswoman, said in an email that there is "no indication" the separations were due to COVID-19, suggesting the departures may have occurred due to "planned retirements, promotions, or other professional or personal reasons."

She said the department froze hiring several months ago to minimize layoffs when the department closes prisons. Deuel Vocational Institution is scheduled to close in September and the department plans to announce another closure later.

Smith said the working conditions have even driven some employees to consider suicide. Suicides have been increasing in recent years among both inmates and correctional officers. Numbers for 2020 weren't yet available, Simas said.

Smith said he decided to retire as soon as he was eligible — after 20 years as an officer — due to the stress of working during the virus.

"I think that saved me a lot of grief," he said. "And I don't know. I don't know what could've happened."

California and other states

The course of the pandemic in California's prisons largely followed national trends inside and outside prisons.

In October the corrections department was reporting fewer than 600 active infections. By Nov. 19, there were 2,056 active cases. The number doubled after Thanksgiving, and it doubled again by Dec. 28, reaching 7,940 active cases.

Around the country, new infections among prison employees reached a peak on Dec. 22, according to an analysis by The Marshall Project, an online journalism outlet focused on criminal justice.

Lauren Brinkley-Rubinstein, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine who heads the COVID Prison Project, rated California's virus response "somewhere right in the middle."

"No correctional setting has escaped massive numbers," Brinkley-Rubinstein said. "And in the places where we haven't seen outbreaks over time, those are the places where we see no testing."

But California's Office of Inspector General, an independent watchdog, has published reports criticizing prisons for their scattershot approaches to symptom screening and for treating mask rules with "indifference."

The inspector general continues to monitor mask compliance. A February report showed compliance levels ranged from partial to full among prison employees while inmates were more likely to be noncompliant.

The office also blasted the prison system for inmate transfers that spread infections.

In May, prison officials ordered transfers of 189 inmates from the California Institution for Men, the site of one of the worst early outbreaks, to San Quentin and the institution in Corcoran.

Inmates who arrived at San Quentin were placed in a housing unit without solid cell doors, and the virus quickly spread, eventually infecting 87% of the prison's 2,600 inmates. At Corcoran, where inmates were placed in cells with solid doors, an outbreak was smaller, according to an Office of the Inspector General report issued last month.

Among the seven prisons that crossed the herd immunity threshold, five reached it before the winter surge set in. Those five prisons — San Quentin, Avenal, Chuckawalla Valley, the California Rehabilitation Center and the Institution for Men — reported few or no infections when the surge arrived.

The other two, the California Men's Colony and Pleasant Valley State Prison, experienced major outbreaks during the winter surge.

Simas didn't provide vaccination rates by prison, or combined data showing vaccination rates and infections, but nearly half of inmates and nearly half of employees system-wide have been vaccinated, according to data she provided.

As long as new coronavirus variants don't change the outlook significantly, the trajectory inside prisons could show how things will go for the general population once a critical number of people are vaccinated, said George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at University of California, San Francisco.

"Hopefully this winter we'll be like Avenal in January," Rutherford said, referencing the protection from COVID-19 that the prison already had when the virus tore through other sites.

Rural California

Prisons may have accelerated the spread of the coronavirus to parts of rural California, where the facilities often are the largest employers and can function as virus incubators. Local officials in rural Lassen County, home to two state prisons, blamed an outbreak there last summer on transfers of infected inmates from San Quentin.

Barbara Longo, Lassen County's director of health and social services, said the state made the transfers despite local officials' warnings that an infected inmate could spread the virus to nearby Susanville, a town of about 15,000 people.

After the virus arrived, local officials struggled to get basic information from the corrections department about the conditions inside the local prisons, Longo said. She said the prison finally opened lines of communication after her team wrote public letters ripping the state for ignoring their concerns.

The prison system eventually turned over daily reports about infected workers and inmates and explained how many workers they needed to ensure the prison could keep operating safely.

"They gave us information that we couldn't get prior to us having to really poke the bear," Longo said. "And so with our twice-a-week meetings and daily reports from them, they continue today to give us daily reports on everything in their prison, in their walls, related to COVID-19."

Simas, the corrections spokeswoman, said every prison had set up an incident command post by July to coordinate among custody and health care branches and local officials.

Longo said the prison took a page from nursing home and hospital playbooks to navigate staffing challenges: Employees who tested positive but weren't showing serious symptoms worked with inmates and other employees who had tested positive.

It wasn't ideal, but it was the best option available, Longo said.

"We looked at that model, and we felt it was reasonable," Longo said. "And that worked out very well, our numbers now are incredibly low."

As of Friday, more than 560 workers tested positive at High Desert State Prison.

Sixty-one percent of inmates there have been infected, suggesting the prison is closing in on herd immunity.

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(c)2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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