Situation in California Prisons Precarious as First COVID Death Occurs at CDCR

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) today announced an inmate from California Institution for Men (CIM) in San Bernardino County passed away at an outside area hospital from what appears to be complications related to COVID-19.

The release stresses that an exact cause of death “has not yet been determined.”

According to CDCR, CIM “has 59 incarcerated persons who have tested positive for COVID-19.”

But this scenario is precisely what many are concerned about—coronavirus running through jails and prisons alike.

Oscar Bobrow and Robin Lipetzky, the president and past president of the California Public Defenders Association, in an op-ed last week noted, “Much like cruise ships, elderly care facilities and homeless shelters, the dangers of the coronavirus spreading like wildfire through local jails is very real.”

In their op-ed they note, “We have already seen this in New York City jails where last week over 700 people including 440 staff tested positive for COVID-19. Persons in custody cannot practice social distancing, do not have access to PPE, and do not have the ability to practice the heightened hygiene measures recommended to prevent contracting and spreading the virus.”

Meanwhile, out of Ohio, the report is even worse at Marion Correctional Institution.

The Columbus Dispatch on Sunday reported, “With testing of every inmate near complete, an additional 692 cases among prisoners were reported at Marion Correctional Institution to raise its total to 1,057 — about 10% of all cases reported in Ohio since March 9.”

The paper added, “The infected inmates — 42% of all prisoners — are in isolation while the prison’s other 1,438 inmates are under quarantine. A total of 108 prison employees have contracted COVID-19 and one has died.”

So far, California has been spared this sort of outbreak—but officials worry without more precaution that it only takes a small number of cases to create a large problem, given the confined space and lack of ability to social distance.

Doctors writing for the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine called for decarceration of the inmate population in order to combat the spread of the disease through vulnerable incarcerated populations.

“We believe that we need to prepare now, by ‘decarcerating,’ or releasing, as many people as possible, focusing on those who are least likely to commit additional crimes, but also on the elderly and infirm,” doctors wrote in the recent report.

Because of confined spaces, restricted movement and limited medical care, incarcerated populations are more vulnerable to the rapid transmission of infectious diseases, such as HIV, hepatitis C, tuberculosis and now coronavirus.

Furthermore, incarcerated populations suffer a higher concentration of these diseases due to disparities in access to healthcare found in groups that are disproportionately more likely to be incarcerated—racial minorities, persons without stable housing or persons suffering from substance abuse or mental disorders.

The doctors add that “improved preparation is essential to minimizing the impact of this pandemic on incarcerated persons, correctional staff, and surrounding communities.”

CDCR maintains that they take “the health and safety of all those who live and work in our state prisons very seriously and will continue to work diligently to address the COVID-19 pandemic.”

But reports received by the Vanguard from inside the prisons are less than encouraging.

In a letter received dated April 6, an individual incarcerated at Corcoran in Kings County wrote, “We have been on a quarantine program for a week now. They are trying to keep (down) the gathering of crowds but it’s not really working as they still play basketball and soccer as (well as) other sports.”

The individual explained, “I’m on F yard which houses 900+ inmates in three buildings called blocks.  So far this yard has no confirmed COVID-19 cases. Yet! We heard of one on G yard but not yet confirmed.”

The staff apparently will not tell them anything and in early April sent 100 inmates to the old SHU (security housing units—solitary confinement).

“This place is in no way ready for what’s coming. There will be no way for them to deal with this when it happens,” he writes.  “We are all worried about the future. We watch the news every night and see it surrounding us and can do nothing.”

He added, “This is a powder keg just waiting for a match.”

Meanwhile, in a letter received from Ajay Dev, the situation is taking a toll on the population.  For those waiting for a new trial, this is another barrier.

In his letter to the Vanguard on April 15, he writes, “As you may know, the prosecutor is in no hurry to continue my evidentiary hearing since I am already stuck in prison. It has been almost six months since we have had a live testimony, and with this COVID-19 outbreaks, all the courts in America are closed, thus, it could be a while before we resume.”

Ajay Dev was in the middle of an evidentiary hearing for his Habeas Corpus petition in hopes of a new trial after being convicted in 2009 of 76 counts of rape and sexual assault on his adopted daughter.  He has always maintained his innocence and his attorneys were attempting to present Judge Beronio of Yolo County with new witnesses and evidence in hopes of getting a new trial.

That stalled when Deputy DA Ryan Couzens ambushed Dev’s attorneys with evidence from prison phone calls to his sister-in-law where he was accused of coaching the witness.

Now with COVID-19, their witnesses are cut off.

He writes, “Few witnesses from Nepal are ready to come to the U.S. for a live testimony, but, due to this virus, all visas and flights has been postponed until further notice.”

They are attempting to see if the court will allow video testimony—as they are in other cases here.

Moreover, “DA Couzens is yet to turn over the translation of jail house phone calls to us.”

Ajay Dev writes that “not being able to see my children, family and friends during this ordeal makes it even more challenging doing time.”

He told the Vanguard, “It’s the most loneliest and darkest place to be if you’ re falsely accused and wrongfully convicted for a crime you never committed.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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