For much of the past week, the Vanguard through its Dashboard on CDCR COVID-19 cases has been tracking a startling and concerning rise of cases at San Quentin Prison.
Yesterday, Aparna Komarla of the Vanguard reported that the number of cases at San Quentin has nearly quadrupled since Friday. They currently have 344 confirmed cases and have tested over 1,190 individuals. On June 11, San Quentin was barely on the radar with 16 cases.
On Saturday the San Francisco Chronicle, at that time reporting on 91 positive tests, tracked the source to a prison transfer from Chino which was at the time experiencing a major outbreak.
Wrote the Chronicle: “In late May, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation decided to transfer 121 incarcerated men from the Chino prison to San Quentin. At the time, officials in Sacramento said this was done to prevent the prisoners from falling victim to the Chino outbreak.”
The problem is that “many of the men weren’t tested for the coronavirus for up to a month before the state put them on buses.”
They have basically transferred the problem from Chino to San Quentin.
“The process of transferring incarcerated people from Chino, which had one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates, to San Quentin, which had no known cases, raises serious questions about CDCR’s management of the pandemic,” Senator Nancy Skinner of Berkeley said.
She added, “While state government overall has done a good job managing the coronavirus crisis, the same care and attention has not been applied to California’s largest congregate settings: state prisons. We can and must do better.”
Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco added, “The outbreak at San Quentin is at once tragic, predictable and unacceptable. The fact that 121 men were transferred to San Quentin from Chino without being tested is stunning.”
Like many, he is concerned about the lack of precaution taken by CDCR.
“We know that the way to stop the spread of COVID-19 is testing, testing and more testing. We know that crowded conditions – like those in our prisons – lead to quick spread of the virus,” the Senator said.
He added, “The human cost of this decision is unthinkable. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation needs to act quickly to reduce the prison population at San Quentin. CDCR also must implement a policy that everyone released or transferred from any prison facility is first tested.”
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin has been warning about this problem for some time.
He told the Vanguard, “The COVID outbreak in San Quentin was both predictable and preventable. Mass incarceration creates the perfect conditions for the tragic spread of this deadly virus. Now, more than ever, public safety and public health demand that move more quickly to reduce our reliance on incarceration.”
Senator Skinner announced on Tuesday that that the Senate Committee on Public Safety will hold an oversight hearing on the Covid-19 outbreak in California prisons a week from Wednesday. According to a release from her office, that hearing will focus on CDCR’s current and future plans for handling of the outbreak, which has now spread to at least 19 state correctional facilities.
At the time of the release, there have been 20 deaths in the system —19 were inmates.
Senator Skinner said she has been monitoring the pandemic in state prisons and has been in regular written and verbal communication with CDCR and the administration. Plans for an oversight hearing were underway, but in light of the worsening conditions at a growing number of CDCR facilities, including San Quentin and Corcoran, the decision was made to hold the hearing before the Senate began its summer recess. Corcoran also has experienced a surge in cases after inmates were transferred from Chino.
Senator Wiener added, “We are holding a Senate Public Safety Committee oversight hearing on July 1st to get to the bottom of what happened here and to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Human lives are at serious risk, and we need significant policy change.”
Meanwhile, San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju sees this as a time to push for additional reform.
In a tweet, he noted that San Quentin is “used as the premier example of redemption and rehabilitation. Time to honor that depiction by releasing ppl based on who they are today, not based only on convictions.”
He noted that most convictions are achieved through the plea bargain process rather than trials.
“This means they’re often meaningless regarding someone’s actual guilt and say nothing about what a person actually did. Instead, they are usually based on threats by DAs that the person faces more time if they go to trial,” he said.
Releases, Raju argued, “releases should be based on who the person is today, not who they were 10, 20, or 30 years ago when they caught their case.”
He believes that overall the risk from such releases is fairly low, but the risk for leaving people in jails and prisons is high.
“About half of the entire California prison system has been deemed at low risk for reoffending, by CDCR’s own assessment,” he said. “In fact, people in prison for some of the most serious offenses have the lowest recidivism rates.”
The Vanguard will be expanding its monitoring of COVID. Right now our dashboard covers all of CDCR, but starting soon, we will also cover jail facilities in seven Northern California Counties.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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