Quarantine Becomes Solitary Confinement at San Quentin; Two More Deaths This Week

By Julietta Bisharyan and Nick Gardner

Incarcerated Narratives

Lee’lannee Wade-Denard’s husband contracted COVID-19 back in July while serving time at San Quentin Prison. Although he has since recovered, the chances of getting reinfected are not out of the question, given the conditions within the cells. 

Besides being unable to properly social distance, incarcerated persons are only permitted to shower every three days instead of every day.

If Wade-Denard’s husband caught the virus again, he would not be able to get retested, as he was previously tested for COVID-19. 

Wade-Denard says her husband is doing much better physically, but the same cannot be said about his mental state. She tries to speak with him on the phone as much as she can.

“I’m trying to lift his spirits up every time I talk to him,” she says.

A few months ago, Wade-Denard’s husband signed up to be released immediately, as part of Gov. Gavin Newsom and CDCR’s efforts to reduce the incarcerated population and curb the spread of the virus within the prisons. But with no sign of being released soon, she believes the governor has broken his promise.

In response to the news of CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz’s recent retirement, Wade-Denard responded, “I’m not surprised.”

Christopher Blackwell is a 39-year-old man serving out the last 23 years of a 45-year sentence at Washington State Reformatory in the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC). In a recent exchange with Solitary Watch, a nonprofit watchdog group overseeing the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, Blackwell reported how solitary confinement units at the MCC are being used to house incarcerated people from other institutions who have tested positive for COVID-19.

As the pandemic began to force lockdowns in prisons across the state, Blackwell described feeling safe at the MCC, whose administration “seemed to have things under control.” Up until that point, there had only been one confirmed case of COVID-19 throughout the entire institution.

However, rumors began to spread of sick individuals from other facilities across Washington State being transferred to the MCC’s solitary confinement units. Blackwell and other individuals began to worry of another lockdown that would again disrupt the daily lives of those at the MCC.

In early June, prison officials confirmed what many already knew to be true.

Many can imagine the tortuous living conditions these transfers would be forced to endure as they battled the deadly virus. However, only those with first-hand experience can understand the full extent of the decision. When Blackwell caught wind of the news, his mind immediately jumped to the grueling 10-hour bus ride these individuals would take from eastern Washington all the way to Monroe.

Blackwell, who was first incarcerated at the age of 11, was quick to note that the transfers “are not luxury bus rides, even when you’re healthy.”

In preparation for the journey, individuals are stripped down to nothing but an orange jumpsuit. Without underwear or socks, they are then cuffed and shackled at the ankles for the duration of the 8-10 hour trip. 

“The bus is like a Greyhound but with no padding on your seat, just hard plastic, ensuring you feel every bump.” Blackwell recounted from his many trips on the bus. “The cuffs and shackles cause biting twinges of pain that never allow you to forget they are there. You shift their resting place every few moments hoping to bring relief from their cold steel, but this rarely works. Using the restroom on this ride is next to impossible, you are forced to crouch down, using your tightly bound hand to wiggle the zipper in hopes of undoing your jumpsuit, all while trying to maintain your balance as the bus sways to and fro.”

Coupled with a deadly respiratory virus and a mask on a hot Washington summer day, an already “nightmare situation” is made even worse.

In the initial memo that informed folks at MCC of their prison’s new status as a COVID-19 holding facility, Blackwell and others were assured that health and safety were at the forefront of the DOC’s actions.

“This attempt at reassurance fell on deaf ears,” Blackwell told Solitary Watch.

Blackwell went on to explain the MCC’s past shortcomings in that regard, such as a recent investigation for medical negligence. Given this history, Blackwell finds it difficult to believe the DOC’s claim that staff are trained and well-equipped to successfully combat the virus.

“Actual medical doctors, along with other highly trained professionals, are having a hard time not contracting the virus themselves and potentially spreading it to those in their care, it’s unlikely the DOC will find success where hospitals have not,” Blackwell said.

Additionally, many at the MCC are concerned about staff members who are working both the solitary confinement units as well as the cells housing the institution’s general population. 

During a meeting between the prison’s administration and incarcerated representatives, the MCC admitted that there was no choice but to schedule staff to both assignments due to a shortage of labor. Blackwell has even heard grumbles throughout the prison from staff who are not comfortable with the roles they are being required to fill.

“Officers are not trained medical professionals. Many correctional officers have little more than a GED, let alone a medical degree or the level of training a registered nurse would receive,” Blackwell noted. In his opinion, the prison’s staff does not have the required expertise to navigate the MCC through a global pandemic, and he likened his prison’s situation to that of San Quentin, which experienced an immense outbreak of the virus due to similar reasons.

Currently, the administration is encouraging MCC’s incarcerated population to report any symptoms of COVID-19 so that they can be relocated to a solitary confinement unit. Incentives offered by the administration include a TV, small radio, GameBoy, playing cards, and more frequent communication with loved ones. 

For Blackwell, who’s spent almost 23 years in the MCC, the offer wasn’t all that tempting.

“The advertisement to stay in this luxurious concrete box–that often triggers horrible memories for those that have spent months or years within them–came with the bonus of receiving three thirty-minute phone calls a week with our loved ones.”

The offer— which is much more of a “slap in the face”— than an enticing prospect, has left many within the MCC hesitant to report symptoms.

“Most would prefer to suffer silently in the comfort of their own cells,” Blackwell admitted.

For those who manage to avoid the virus within the prison’s cramped living quarters, the DOC has given officers sweeping authority to distribute infractions for not wearing a mask or practicing safe social distancing. The latter, Blackwell admits, is nearly impossible. Given that infractions can be given for orders that cannot be complied with, correctional officers are able to “target whomever they please,” and “overuse and abuse their power.”

Officers are quick to enforce these measures on the MCC’s incarcerated population, but don’t always comply themselves. 

Blackwell described a recent incident where he was told off for his mask slipping below his nose. Blackwell quickly fixed his mask before noticing that the officer’s colleague had his mask around his chin, exposing his mouth and nose. Boldly, Blackwell alerted the officers of their hypocrisy, but was met only with a smirk from both officers. 

For Blackwell, the Department of Correction needs to be more open to advice from medical professionals, and must end the practice of transferring sick individuals between facilities— especially by bus.

Mitigation practices within the facility must also be improved on. As of now, the MCC’s incarcerated population does not even have access to hand sanitizer.

“I promise you Game Boys are the least of our concerns.” Blackwell said in closing. “The time has come for the DOC to stop telling prisoners and our loved ones these feeble lies. They must show us we are a priority by letting their actions do the talking. Until then prisoners will wait for what seems to be the inevitable, our next quarantine lockdown and the possible contraction of a deadly virus.”

CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes

As of Sep. 4, there are a total of 11,029 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 1,026 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 11.9% of the cases are active in custody while 3.1% have been released while active. Roughly 84.3% of confirmed cases have been resolved.

There have been 59 deaths across the CDCR system thus far and two this week at California Men’s Colony (CMC) in San Luis Obispo and at the Correctional Training Facility (CTF) in Soledad. These are the first reported deaths at CMC and CTF from what appear to be complications related to COVID-19.

The death at CMC, however, has not yet been added to San Luis Obispo County’s COVID-19 death count.

“We had made a decision some weeks ago that in our county we would only count those that have underlying cause of death listed as COVID,” said San Luis Obispo County Public Health officer Dr. Penny Borenstein.

Since March, the county has removed two cases from its count that were initially labeled as COVID-19 deaths after further investigation into the causes of death.

“We have not reported [the CMC death] in our statistics yet as we have determined that we will only put it in our count on our public-facing website once we have a final death certificate so that we will have no more variability going forward,” Borenstein said.

According to Borenstein, a death will only be considered COVID-19 related if it is listed as one of the causes of death on the death certificate.

A total of 274 incarcerated persons have tested positive for the virus at CMC since the start of the pandemic. 30 of those cases are within the past 14 days.

Six active cases have been released while 64 individuals still in custody remain ill. CDCR says 203 inmates have recovered.

The SLO County Public Health Department says the confirmed cases at CMC are not taken into consideration when calculating the county’s reopening metrics.

Avenal State Prison (ASP) has reported the most new cases in the last two weeks, 327. ASP has tested 19% of its population during this period.

Active cases at CA Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino reduced from 1,110 to 1,109 on Tuesday. Similarly, confirmed cases of COVID-19 decreased by two overnight in the California Institution for Women (CIW).

California City Correctional Facility (CAC) has resolved all four confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (CVSP) did not report any new cases during the entire month of August. CVSP has also tested the least patients in the last two weeks –– only 2% of its population. 

Folsom State Prison (FSP) in Represa, which has tested the most in the last two weeks, has slowly begun to increase in active cases after beginning to recover from its most recent outbreak. 

FSP has tested 88% of its population while confirmed cases have increased from 357 to 396 between  September 3rd and September 4th..

As of Sept. 2, there are 95,146 incarcerated persons in California’s prisons – a reduction of 19,172 since March 12, 2020. According to CDCR, there are currently 17 incarcerated persons receiving medical care at outside health care facilities across the state.

CDCR Staff

There have been 2,908 staff cases in the CDCR facilities. 1,321 are currently active and 1,587 have returned to work.

San Quentin makes up 9.6% of the total staff cases.

Effect of CDCR Outbreaks on the Public 

After heading CDCR for over a year as well as presiding the court-ordered reduction in the incarcerated population during the pandemic, State prisons chief Ralph Diaz is retiring in October.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Friday that he would nominate one of Diaz’s top aides, Kathleen Allison, to succeed him.

Diaz began work as a guard at Wasco State Prison in 1991 and later served as warden at the prison in Corcoran. He was appointed secretary of the CDCR by Gov. Gavin Newsom in March 2019.

“I am confident that our department’s transformative focus on rehabilitation will continue to result in safer prisons, healthier communities, and lower recidivism,” Diaz said in a statement released by Newsom’s office.

Back in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court had ordered California to reduce the population of its overcrowded prisons by 40,000 to allow for improvements.

On Friday, Newsom said that Diaz had led the overall population-reduction efforts, which began under his predecessors and brought the incarcerated population below 98,000 –– more than 50,000 below the 2011 level.

The Chino transfers, however, that were approved by Diaz’s office and led to the major outbreak at San Quentin have dimmed the department’s image.

“The spread of COVID-19 at state prisons was a preventable public health disaster and a failure of CDCR leadership at the highest level,” said Assemblyman Marc Levine.

Diaz’s designated successor, Allison, is a nurse who joined the department as a medical assistant in 1987, later becoming warden at Corcoran and is now the department’s undersecretary of operations.

“I am confident she will continue to lead CDCR through innovative transformation, including focusing on rehabilitative opportunities for individuals both inside and outside of prison, and continuing the path for restorative justice,” Newsom said.

Shasta County Sheriff Eric Magrini has sent an email to the CDCR pleading for help in response to recent policy prioritizing the release of jailed individuals in large counties over small counties.

Currently, the CDCR is limiting the capacity of state prisons largely in part by delaying the intake of prison-sentenced individuals. This places a great amount of stress on county jails, especially in small counties such as Shasta.

In his letter, Margini writes: “The ability to hold offenders accountable in Shasta County is at the worst level that I can ever remember or can research. This creates a significant public safety concern that is exacerbated by the continued release of prison inmates into our communities. When you couple these CDCR releases with the inability to send our sentenced inmates to prison, thus eliminating the ability to hold local offenders accountable, this creates the perfect storm for our communities here in Shasta County to become even more victimized due to these State policies.”

The number of beds available at the Shasta County Jail is 484, but due to a recent court order the facility is only allowed to house 90% of its capacity. Furthermore, due to CDCR policy, the jail is currently holding 162 prison-sentenced individuals.

In an attempt to clear up jail space, a judicial order was passed recently that removes bail fines for certain offenders. This has allowed for the release of many incarcerated individuals back into the community, which Sheriff Margini believes to be a public safety concern as well as an inappropriate “one size fits all” approach to managing jails.

The CDCR has sent out a release addressing the problems local jails face as a result of delayed prison intakes. In response they have implemented a reimbursement process “to mitigate the fiscal impact associated with these delayed transfers.”

However, Sheriff Margini is still not pleased with the CDCR’s decision.

“This creates the perfect storm for our communities here in Shasta County to become even more victimized due to these State policies,” said Margini.

Instead, Margini believes that an effective response must look at more than just a county’s population

“I am seeking any assistance and/or relief possible for the State’s prisons to open their doors to the Counties that are most proportionally impacted instead of based on County size.”

CDCR Comparisons – California and the US

According to the Marshall Project, California prisons rank fourth in the country for the highest number of confirmed cases, following Texas, Florida and Federal prisons. California makes up 9.2% of total cases among incarcerated people and 5.9% of the total deaths in prison.

There have been at least 2,829 cases of coronavirus reported among prison staff. 9 staff members have died while 1,561 have recovered.

Division of Juvenile Justice

As of Sep. 4, there are no active cases of COVID-19 among youth at DJJ facilities, and 68 have been resolved.

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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