6 Individuals on San Quentin’s Death Row Died of Coronavirus, Shortage of Firefighters due to CDCR Quarantines

By Julietta Bisharyan & Mella Bettag

California firefighting forces are still lacking in numbers after four CDCR fire camps had quarantine extended.

As discussed in our last weekly report, twelve Northern California Fire camps were put into quarantine after part of the camp’s population was exposed to an outbreak. The California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville first discovered 4 positive cases on June 21, after a transfer from San Quentin. A group of firefighters from CDCR’s camps were possibly exposed after visiting CCC for training.

Because of the possible exposure and subsequent quarantine, Cal Fire lost 77 firefighting crews in the midst of what is projected to be a particularly bad fire season. 

4 of the 12 Northern California camps have been exposed once again, leading to a lengthened quarantine, of two additional weeks minimum.

The exposure came from 1 of the 4 nurses who was testing people at Intermountain, Sugar Pine, Salt Creek and Valley View Conservation camps. A couple of days after testing at all four facilities, the nurse tested positive.

The 4 camps in which quarantine is being continued, house as many as 21% of Northern California prison fire crews, i.e. 250 incarcerated firefighters. According to Lt. Ben Ingwerson, Valley View fire camp commander, none of the quarantined individuals have shown symptoms yet. Quarantine is projected to last 2 weeks, as long as no positive cases are identified.

According to incarcerated people within the fire camps, quarantining there is easier than in other CDCR facilities. Inmates have single beds, the exercise yard is available, and sanitation is more comprehensive. 

Newsom’s plan to remedy the lack of firefighting forces by hiring 858 seasonal firefighters  is “underway right now”, according to Cal Fire spokesperson Christine McMorrow. 

McMorrow stated that “we’re hoping [those in quarantine are] going to get off of that and be available again this fire season.”

Public Concerns About COVID-19 in CDCR

While many prison reform advocates, defense attorneys, and politicians are positive about Newsom’s continued release of CDCR residents starting August, other parts of the California community are expressing their concerns.

10,000 individuals have already been released in 2 previous waves. On July 10, Governor Gavin Newsom announced the further release of 8,000 incarcerated individuals starting August. Those who are high-risk, over 30 years of age, or have less than 180 days to serve are eligible for release.

Many public officials are skeptical of these releases. Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown expressed concerns that the releases “will have an impact both on safety and public health on California counties.” 

Dan Dow, San Luis Obispo District Attorney expressed concern for the safety of “victims of crime and other law-abiding criminals”, saying they “will now have to wonder if they will become the next victim of a career criminal who was released early”. 

Some have also questioned whether releases will jeopardize public health. Speaking of the release, Santa Maria resident Jana Moore said “it’s bringing [coronavirus] into communities instead of keeping it isolated in the prison.”

As a part of the releases, CDCR has mandated testing for every individual to be released. Victims will also be notified. 

CDCR Confirmed Cases and Outcomes

As of July 17, there are 6,782 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR facilities, with 39 deaths –– 8 since last week. CA Institution for Men in Chino has 48% of the total deaths, with 2 deaths in the past few days. One individual has also died at Avenal State Prison (ASP), totaling to 4 deaths there.

California Medical Facility (CMF) in Vacaville and Kern Valley State Prison (KVSP) in Delano recorded their first cases on Friday. Both CMF and KVSP have tested 27% of their population.

7 of the 35 facilities still have zero cases, including Central CA Women’s Facility in Chowchilla and Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City. 16 facilities have not had any new cases in the past week.

At CA Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, 106 individuals have tested positive in the last week –– 77 overnight. Likewise, the number of cases at Wasco State Prison more than doubled in a day, from 47 to 109. 15 individuals who tested positive have been released from CDCR facilities. 

COVID-19 in CDCR’s San Quentin

Since last week, there have been 5 more deaths in San Quentin, now totaling to 12. Although there has been no official confirmation yet, they are suspected to be from complications related to coronavirus.

One of the individuals is Jeffrey Hawkins, 64, who was on death row. Hawkins moved to San Quentin from Sacramento County in 1990 for two counts of first-degree murder with use of a firearm, and attempted first-degree murder with use of a firearm inflicting great bodily injury.

He was pronounced dead at an outside hospital.

Another incarcerated individual died on Tuesday, however, the agency said they would not identify him “to protect individual medical privacy.”

According to reports, only the 6 individuals on San Quentin’s Death Row who died from confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections have been identified by CDCR, while incarcerated people from the general population who have died have not.

As of Friday, 2,069 incarcerated people and 200 workers have tested positive at San Quentin. 1,138 are active in custody, 38 have been released while active and 881 have been resolved.

San Quentin had under 3,400 in custody as of last Wednesday, according to a weekly CDCR population report, despite having a capacity of 3,082. The state lists its “staffed capacity” at just over 4,350 individuals.

According to the State Health Department’s watch list, which monitors 31 of the state’s 58 counties, San Quentin is listed first among the driving factors for elevated COVID-19 activity across all of Marin County.

CDCR Comparisons – California and the US

According to the Marshall Project, as of July 17, California prisons are still third in the country in number of confirmed cases, following Texas and Federal prisons. California’s deaths makeup 10% of the total US deaths in prisons –– doubling since last week.

There have been at least 1,291 cases of coronavirus reported among prison staff. 536 staff have recovered while three have died.

CDCR and CCHCS Precautions

Last Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom and CDCR announced additional actions to maximize space and to reduce its population –– about 8,000 incarcerated people –– to address COVID-19. CDCR estimates that 4,800 people could be eligible for release by the end of July.

Individuals must meet certain criteria to be eligible for release, such as not currently serving time for domestic violence or a violent crime as defined by law and by not having current or prior sentences that require them to register as a sex offender.

CDCR is offering a 12-week programming credit for those not on Death Row, not serving life without parole and without a serious violation on their record since March. This encompasses 208,000 incarcerated individuals, with 2,100 who can advance to being eligible for release in the summer.

CDCR is also reviewing release protocols for individuals who are deemed at “high risk,” such as those pregnant or in hospice. Each person will be reviewed based on their current health risks as well as their risk to public safety.

“These actions are taken to provide for the health and safety of the incarcerated population and staff,” said CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz. “We aim to implement these decompression measures in a way that aligns both public health and public safety.”

About The Author

The Covid In-Custody Project partners with the Davis Vanguard to report on the pandemic's impact on California's county jails and state prisons. See www.covidincustody.org for more information.

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