Hunger Strike at San Quentin As Outbreak Continues, CDCR Intake Halted, Face Masks Required by Staff


(Most recent update)

By Mella Bettag and Julietta Bisharyan


CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes

As of July 3, there are a total of 5,268 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR facilities, with 22 deaths. 26% of those positive cases are from the San Quentin State Prison (SQ). According to J. Clark Kelso, the federal court-appointed receiver of medical care for CDCR, 42 San Quentin inmates have been hospitalized.

11 CDCR facilities, including the Central California Women’s Facility, have yet to report any cases. Testing in prisons has increased astronomically, with Sierra Conservation Center testing 1,056 individuals just overnight.


COVID-19 in CDCR’s San Quentin

So far, two deaths in San Quentin are suspected to be COVID-19 related, although there has been no official confirmation yet. The most recent death was Joseph Cordova, 75, who had been on Death Row since 2007 after murdering an 8-year-old girl in San Pablo. Officials are yet to conduct an examination of Cordova’s body to test if he died of coronavirus.

Richard Stitely, 71, was the first inmate on Death Row to die at SQ.On June 24, After he was found unresponsive in his jail cell, he was tested positive for the virus. However, the official cause of his death is still being confirmed.

Stitely had spent the past 30 years on Death Row for raping and murdering a 47-year-old woman and leaving her body in the parking lot of an industrial complex in North Hollywood.

In the past two weeks, COVID-19 cases have spiked in SQ, with 940 testing positive and 1,404 overall. Just three weeks ago, on June 14, there were only 48 cases, in a population of about 3,776 inmates and a capacity of 3,082.

The sudden increase could be attributed to the transfer of 121 inmates from the California Institute for Men in Chino, many who were high-risk. The state prison had decided to move about 700 inmates to other prisons due to an outbreak of COVID-19.

Officials say that the transferred men were clear of COVID-19 but were medically vulnerable.

Reports from the San Francisco Chronicle, however, found that many of the inmates had not been tested for a month before being put onto crowded buses. Upon arrival at SQ, many felt sick and tested positive.

“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,” state Sen. Nancy Skinner said in a statement.

In response to the rapidly-spreading virus, a group of infected inmates in SQ have begun a hunger strike to protest the inhumane living conditions put in place during quarantine. 

“[T]he cells are filthy and we are not being given cleaner to maintain them,” one inmate said. “Some of us are being housed together when the whole thing is to keep us six feet away from each other.”  

Sources inside the prison relay that asymptomatic inmates are forced to double up in a single cell, while medical care is insufficient. Many inmates are refusing COVID-19 tests and failing to report any symptoms out of fear of the poor treatment.

Although 20 inmates had committed to the hunger strike, only seven have begun refusing meals.


CDCR Comparisons – California and the US

According to the Marshall Project, as of July 2nd, California prisons are fourth in the country in number of confirmed cases, following Texas, Federal prisons, and Ohio. California deaths makeup 3.5% of the total US deaths in prisons.  

Because of overcrowding, lack of medical care and staff, and a much higher-risk population, CDCR facilities have significantly different COVID-related numbers than the rest of  California. The number of confirmed cases per 10,000 in CDCR facilities is 639% higher than the rest of California, which currently has 253,000 cases. The number of cases resulting in death per 10,000 is 23% higher in CDCR, and the number of tests administered per 10,000 is 226% higher. 


Prison Staff Report and Community Transfer Concerns

There have been 847 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in CDCR staff. 370 have recovered and 2 have died. This has caused growing concern, as many local government and prison officials are concerned that prison staff will bring COVID out of the prisons. 

For example, officials in Lassen County began to voice their concerns about the growing number of cases in California Correctional Center (CCC) in Susanville, which possibly stemmed from a transfer. The prison is a major employer in the town, which means the county has to be on the lookout for public outbreaks. 


CDCR Precautions

On June 30th, CDCR established a “Unified Command Center” in response to the San Quentin outbreak. The team is made up of “experts from CDCR, California Correctional Health Care Services, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Emergency Medical Services Authority, California Department of Public Health, and Division of Occupational Safety and Health.” It’s duties are to coordinate the medical response to the outbreak, and organize the custody of inmates who are affected.

This team is the only one of its kind so far. However, in the oversight hearing on Wednesday, it was indicated that Ralph Diaz, Secretary for CDCR, “ has shared a plan and a vision for extending [the Unified Command Center program]”. 

On July 1st, CDCR began preparing a staff transfer to San Quentin to support the ever-growing outbreak there. According to the plan, CDCR and healthcare staff from other facilities will be brought to San Quentin to fill much-needed demands. These transfers will work and live in San Quentin for 30 days. Before and after their temporary stay, they will be tested. According to CDCR, these staffing changes will begin “as soon as possible”. 

Earlier this week, triage tents were put up in San Quentin in an attempt to create more space within the prison and separate the contagious population from those who have not been infected. 

Since June 11th, all CDCR staff have been required to wear a facial barrier at all times. On July 1st, it was mandated that those who do not will face “progressive discipline”. Face coverings have also been mandated for employees at CDCR headquarters and regional offices.

Intake to all CDCR facilities was halted on June 29th. This suspension will continue for a month, until July 29th. Additionally, all non-essential transfers have stopped. 

CDCR uses the Interim Guidance for Health Care and Public Health Providers as the general protocol for facilities. 

Many of these protocols are impossible to follow because of under-staffing and overcrowding. According to Aljazeera, San Quentin, the prison with the largest outbreak is at 113.8% capacity.



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 for more information.

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