California State Assembly Blasts CDCR’s COVID-19 Response Following Inspector General Report – Weekly Highlights from CDCR’s COVID-19 Crisis

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By Julietta Bisharyan and Nick Gardner

Incarcerated Narratives

In the midst of the pandemic, Bill was caught between a fire camp in Valley View Conservation Camp and High Desert State Prison (HDSP) in Susanville.

Bill, who was incarcerated for six years before being released in September, shared his experiences with the Davis Vanguard. His name has been changed to protect him from potential retaliatory actions from prison officials. 

When the COVID-19 outbreaks began in March, Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) in Tracy –– the reception center for the northern region of CDCR –– did not start testing or handing out masks until May.

The masks that were handed out were not the N95 masks that prison advocacy groups were sending in, but rather a cloth mask made from a cut up t-shirt with two little ear holes.

The N95 masks were instead reserved for the officers to wear.

Although Governor Gavin Newsom restricted transfers between prisons and jails, CDCR continued to move individuals throughout the whole system.

Initially, HDSP did not report any cases, but the lead clerk for Cal Fire and CDCR transported people from DVI and San Quentin State Prison. They were not tested before being moved.

At the cusp of fire season, all the fire camps were put on quarantine for two weeks and each individual was tested twice. If there were no positive cases, they were allowed to be released.

At Bill’s fire camp in Valley View, four contract nurses were sent in. Two of the nurses had COVID-19.

“They didn’t even test the nurses who were coming into the facilities to test the inmates,” says Bill. “It was a whole big mess, and I’m sure it’s no different now.”

Bill recalls his commander speaking with the press about the prison’s conditions. The warden at HDSP immediately sent him a letter, telling him that his job would be in jeopardy if he spoke to the media again about the prison’s policies and procedures.

“There was a memorandum sent out by the warden of Susanville in September going around CDCR right after my commander got lambasted, and it stated that nobody can speak out about the conditions because staff members were talking to the media,” Bill says. “It said your jobs [are] in jeopardy if you speak to the media, you’re under contract to not speak to any resources, the only one allowed to speak is the PIO (public information officer).” 

For individuals who needed to be quarantined, prison officials would move one section of the incarcerated population to a different area, clean and disinfect that area, then move positive COVID-19 patients there.

Instead of moving patients to special housing, regular cells were converted into quarantine blocks.

Bill says that the fire camps were so isolated, that the only way for anyone to be infected was if a staff member from Cal Fire or CDCR brought in the virus. To further mitigate the spread, education, substance abuse and anger management programs all shut down. Family visits also ceased.

At first, the incarcerated population was in good shape, until nurses were brought in and started moving people to HDSP for small medical issues. People from the fire camps would get mixed in with COVID-19 patients and would have to do a two-week quarantine.

“It only takes a few people to bring it into a prison population, and it spreads like wildfire because it’s so crowded in there that there’s nowhere else for it to go.”

CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes

As of Nov. 13, there are a total of 17,257 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 1,400 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 8 percent of the cases are active in custody while 2.6 percent have been released while active. Roughly 88 percent of confirmed cases have been resolved.

There have been 82 deaths within the CDCR facilities. 20 incarcerated persons are currently receiving medical care at outside health care facilities across the state.

On Nov. 11, Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (CVSP) reported a another COVID-19 related death bringing the death toll to seven. 

This week, several institutions witnessed a massive increase in cases.

Correctional Training Facility (CTF) in Soledad reported 158 cases.

Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF) broke 1,000 total confirmed cases, by reporting 130 new cases this week.

High Desert State Prison (HDSP) reported 231 new cases this week. HDSP now has 260 cases active in custody and has only resolved four cases.

In the past two weeks Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF) has tested the most, 85 percent of its population. SATF’s testing statistic rose to 3,833 –– the largest of any institution during the pandemic. 

Kern Valley State Prison (KVSP) has tested the least, only 6 percent of its population.

There are currently 97,753 incarcerated persons in California’s prisons – a reduction of 24,656 since March 2020, when the prison outbreaks first began.

Currently, CDCR institutions are 105 percent over capacity amidst efforts to reduce population.

Effect on the Public

Following a recent report by the Office of the Inspector General, the California State Assembly conducted a hearing last week to investigate the efficacy and enforcement of the CDCR’s evolving safety standards to slow the spread of COVID-19 in CDCR. Specifically, OIG investigators found that staff and incarcerated individuals at multiple CDCR institutions were not being held accountable to these measures.

On the hot seat was CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison, who was described by Berkeley Law Professor Hadar Aviram as “defensive” in response to inquiries by Assemblymember Phil Ting into mitigation strategies— or rather a lack thereof— at CDCR institutions. Ting pushed back against Allison’s attempts to upsell CDCR’s pandemic response, noting that there were multiple ways in which compliance with crucial safety standards could be monitored. He drew a parallel to nursing homes, which are subject to surprise visits as opposed to CDCR audits where “everyone’s on their best behavior” for scheduled investigative visits. 

As referenced by Ting, nursing homes and prisons, which face similar challenges responding to the pandemic, have yielded a “disproportionate number of COVID cases.” While acknowledging the variables working against prisons, such as crowding, Ting rejected Allison’s claim that “there [is] no systematic problem at CDCR,” stating:

“There are things out of your control, such as the physical plant, but there are things that are in your control and that’s what we’re concerned about. There were things that could have mitigated, could have reduced the situation, it was not done, and was not done in a systemic fashion. The fact that there’s enough data to show significant inconsistency between institutions shows some systematic failure, in my opinion.”

Ting’s questioning then shifted to a doctor working under J. Clark Kelso, a receiver at the California Correctional Health Care Services, which provides medical care to CDCR and oversees more than 7,000 doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and administrative staff. Ting fired a loaded question at the doctor, stating almost rhetorically:

“You have people dying in facilities in pretty high numbers. Why do you think they wouldn’t have taken that as a cue to take this seriously?” The doctor argued that the situation in prisons mirrors the political conversation surrounding PPE, specifically about whether masks are helpful or harmful. Ting rebuked this answer, reminding the doctor that “you don’t run a hospital, you run a department where freedom was taken away.”  

The doctor emphasized that he was not questioning the efficiency of masks, but rather highlighting that CDCR issued masks were “thick, hot, and hard to breathe.” He urged those in attendance to recognize how wearing a mask for part of the day outside differs from doing so 24/7 within the confines of an indoor cell. “It’s a heavy lift,” he added. “The overwhelming majority of patients and staff are doing a good job – they are not being perfect, they are fallible. Our physical plant is not conducive to people complying.” 

As suggested, there is a lack of disciplinary action for noncompliance. A “firm consistent message from secretary and receiver about our expectations about face coverings” has been clear. However, in absence of a disciplinary plan, the doctor admitted that health administrators “hoped that people would do the right thing”— a response that Assemblymember Cooper accredited to “failed leadership.”

The hearing concluded with time for public comment. The majority of commentators offered perspective on the mental health repercussions of visitation bans, especially as the holiday season approaches. One woman in attendance questioned why PPE protocol at schools, churches, and other public areas are widely considered as sufficient by health experts, but are not deemed as acceptable protection for CDCR visits. Others in attendance criticized the CDCR’s responses as a “livestream of lies and obfuscations,” dissatisfied with answers to questions of release policies, transparency, and more. 

Aviram described the hearing as “reassuring.” Ting and Cooper were adamant in their questioning and refused to accept the likes of “we’re looking into this” and other attempts to further delay critical action. “We cannot let In re Von Staich go to waste and people’s lives being more at risk via unnecessary transfers than they already are,” Aviram asserted. The Von Staich decision was a win for those in favor of reducing prison capacity, however population statistics at multiple CDCR institutions continues to increase, and major outbreaks have been reported at four institutions.

Aviram’s conclusion – “We must press on.”

On October 15, 2016, Richard Anthony Sepolio lost control of his pickup truck near the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, striking a group of people in Chicano park and killing four. As part of an effort to drastically reduce San Quentin’s population, the 27 year-old will be released on November 6 after serving only 2 years and 10 months of a 9 year, 8 month prison sentence.

The bulk of Sepolio’s sentence formed around convictions on four counts of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Prosecutors discovered that Sepolio had been drinking before the incident— which resulted in his attempt to cut off another driver on the bridge’s transition ramp— but registered a blood alcohol content below the legal limit of .08. 

The crash claimed the lives of Annamarie and Cruz Contreras, a married couple from Arizona aged 50 and 52, respectively, as well as San Diego residents Andre Banks, 49, and Francine Jimenez, 46. Seven others were seriously injured. Sepelio only received a conviction on one count of DUI causing injury.

“Sepolio is not like any other prisoner,” said MaryAnn Contreras, the daughter of Annamarie and Cruz Contreras. “He killed four people. He injured seven seriously and he affected hundreds of lives.”

The San Diego District Attorney’s Office described CDCR’s decision to release Sepelio as a “surprise” to the victims and case prosecutors alike. Early releases are usually accompanied by testimony of an incarcerated individual’s good behavior while in prison. For Sepelio, no such justification was provided.

“This very early release is unconscionable,” said Summer Stephan of the San Diego DA’s Office. “CDCR’s decision is re-victimizing the family and friends of the four people killed and seven injured who have been devastated by their loss and continue to deal with the financial, emotional, mental and physical trauma caused by the defendant. This inmate continues to deny and minimize the crime by refusing to admit he was speeding and denying being impaired while arguing with his girlfriend on the phone, which resulted in the devastating crash.”

Sepolio’s attorney, Paul Fingst, defended CDCR’s decision to release the former Navy petty officer. 

“Mr. Sepolio is being treated like every other person in the California prison system,” Fingst said. “He’s getting no favoritism, no extra breaks. The victims’ families, obviously and understandably, wish that he was convicted of a more serious offense, but he was not. He has done everything that the court system has asked him to do, everything the Navy asked him to do, [and] everything the prison system has asked him to do and he has received the credits that every other prisoner in the state of California receives.  That is why he is being released.” 

For Maryann, time served is not a just sentence for her parent’s killer, who is still yet to apologize for his fatal actions.

“He gets to walk free tomorrow, have Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter. Meanwhile at our kitchen table, we have two empty chairs that we will never be able to fill.”

CDCR Staff

There have been at least 4,631 cases of COVID-19 reported among prison staff. 10 staff members have died while 4,098 have returned to work. 533 are still active.

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 percent of total cases among incarcerated people and 5.8 percent of the total deaths in prison.

California also makes up 11 percent of total cases and 11 percent of total deaths among prison staff.

Division of Juvenile Justice

As of Nov. 13, there are no active cases of COVID-19 among youth at DJJ facilities. 70 cases have been resolved.

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