By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief
SACRAMENTO – It looks like thousands of state prison inmates may be getting an “early out” – joining at least 600 and maybe more Sacramento County Jail inmates who have been released early since last week in an effort to combat a potential COVID-19 outbreak in jails and prisons.
While it took an emergency court order from Sacramento County Superior Court to convince Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones to release nearly 1,000 inmates from the county jails, it looks as though Gov. Newsom doesn’t need the court’s intervention.
In fact, state lawyers argued in a filing Tuesday in federal court that the state recognizes the need to prevent prisons from becoming “hot spots,” and that they already have taken “immediate, bold and appropriate steps” to stop COVID-19 from infecting the prisons.
The court will hear more from the state Thursday, but lawyers for inmates have insisted that California has not done enough to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus for those incarcerated.
Prisoner advocates have noted, as well, that the prisons have long been overcrowded and that giving about 3,500 inmates an early release – only if their normal release date is within 30 or 60 days – is not nearly enough even if the virus wasn’t knocking on the gates of the 35 state prisons.
Although only one inmate was listed as positive for COVID-19 a week ago, state officials now say that at least four inmates have the virus and several dozen correctional guards have been diagnosed with COVID-19. And, like hospitals, personal protective gear is lacking. And testing for the virus in the prisons is presumed to be a lacking as it is in the general populace.
“My opinion is that we need to do more….there’s simply no way to do social distancing, quarantining, isolation the way the rest of us are experiencing,” said Michael Bien, one of the lawyers advocating for additional inmates to be released.
Older prisoners, already sick with diseases like cancer, are – as they are in civilian life – more at risk. And if they, and others, get sick, it would help to overwhelm hospitals and already soon-to-be besieged hospital workers, say advocates.
Bien explained that overcrowding is, like jammed cities in China or New York, a breeding ground for the virus – and state prisons have room for 90,000 bodies but are currently handling upwards of 125,000.
The Los Angeles Times reported that conditions inside the prisons – never good – are now resembling nightmarish scenarios. Inmates who are sick are being isolated in their cells, and families are fearful it’s just a matter of time before the overcrowding gets much, much worse.
But state prison officials say they are doing enough.
“The threat from the COVID-19 pandemic is constantly shifting, and with each passing day, government officials are tasked with addressing this dangerous moving target,” lawyers for the state wrote.
“Our system is designed to rely on the sound judgment of our elected leaders and their expert staff and advisors to address these complicated issues in a manner that takes all relevant factors into consideration and balances the needs of our state with the limitations imposed on nearly every sector of society by this crippling pandemic,” wrote state officials, while noting the COVID-19 threat is “constantly shifting” and is a “moving target.”
One news report Tuesday suggested several prisons blamed the early cases on food service.
Although THE VANGUARD was told by a Sacramento attorney who has clients in prison that he’s not heard of any kind of problems. Yet.
“My guy works in the kitchen and hasn’t reported anything to me. It might just be a matter of time,” the defense attorney and former local and U.S. prosecutor said.
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