San Quentin COVID-19 violations lead to biggest pandemic fine
The $421,880 fine against the CDCR is by far the largest penalty assessed against any entity in a single citation
By Michael Williams
San Francisco Chronicle
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Regulators have fined the California prison system more than $400,000 for health violations — many of them coronavirus-related — at San Quentin State Prison.
The $421,880 fine against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is by far the largest penalty assessed against any entity in a single citation by Cal-OSHA during the coronavirus pandemic. Inspections in June and July found nine violations at San Quentin, six of them considered serious.
The agency will have the opportunity to appeal the fine. A spokesperson for the prison system said that San Quentin "has made many improvements and already remedied several of the citations in the eight months since Cal-OSHA visited the institution."
"We will continue to work with public health, health care, and workplace safety experts to improve processes throughout the pandemic, as our top priority is to keep all those who live and work in our state prisons safe," agency spokesperson Dana Sims said in a statement.
The large fine comes days after the state Office of Inspector General slammed the prison system in a blistering report, saying prison officials and medical staff sparked a "public health disaster" with their botched handling of the May transfers of 189 inmates from a Chino prison to both San Quentin and Corcoran State Prison in Kings County.
San Quentin received 122 inmates during the transfer. Within weeks, 91 ultimately tested positive for the virus — leading to a massive outbreak. More than 2,200 people incarcerated at San Quentin ultimately tested positive for the coronavirus over the course of the pandemic, though relatively few infections have occurred recently. San Quentin has reported 28 deaths among prisoners, and one death of a staff member.
Most of the violations cited by regulators at San Quentin were related to the prison's coronavirus-prevention protocols — or lack thereof.
Among the most serious violations that inspectors said they found:
- San Quentin allowed coronavirus-positive staff members to complete their work shifts.
- San Quentin allowed some staff members working in certain posts to circumvent coronavirus-screening stations.
- San Quentin allowed inmates with suspected or confirmed coronavirus cases to intermingle in housing units with noninfected inmates.
- San Quentin failed to train employees on coronavirus risk assessments and procedures and failed to train them on the use of N95 respirators and the limitations of face coverings as a means of slowing the spread of the virus.
- Regulators counted at least five instances where prison employees were hospitalized with COVID-19, but the prison did not report the hospitalizations as required by law, Cal-OSHA said.
Since then, San Quentin has taken "steps to ensure that appropriate Cal-OSHA notifications were completed for known serious injuries and illness and that staff and incarcerated people were provided and required to use N95 masks per public health recommendations," said Sims, the prison spokesperson.
Not all of the violations found by Cal-OSHA related to the prison's coronavirus protocols. Correctional officers and medical staff were found to be moving some inmates on stretchers via stairs as opposed to elevators.The inspection also found that the prison did not provide suitable cleaning agents in the employee restroom or inmate canteen — an issue of concern whether or not the coronavirus is present.
Since the botched transfers in May, activists and people incarcerated in San Quentin have been pleading for the release of inmates at the prison.
James King, who was formerly incarcerated at San Quentin and now works for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, said both the Cal-OSHA citation and the OIG report have confirmed what he and others have been saying about conditions inside the prison for months.
The truth, King said, is that the prison has been "overwhelmed from the very beginning." Now, people incarcerated are worried about a second or third wave of infections brought on by new coronavirus variants.
"I won't feel vindicated, and I don't think others will, until the policy makers start holding themselves accountable by following the science, by releasing people from such obviously dangerous circumstances," King said. "This is the second report that came out this week that reveals that what San Quentin and CDCR has been telling us since last May has been categorically false — that they are somehow doing everything possible to protect the people inside."
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