CDCR Implements Mandatory Staff Testing; Vaccinations Begin at CA Healthcare Facility

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Davis Vanguard’s weekly highlights from CDCR’s COVID-19 crisis

Incarcerated Narratives

Alice Davis’ husband is incarcerated in California Training Facility (CTF). Due to the pandemic, Davis has not been able to visit him for nearly 10 months. She described her experience to The Californian.

Davis sadly expressed how she and her family would not be able to see her husband for Christmas again. She said, “I’m very fortunate that I have a strong support system, with my son, my family. I know I won’t see him, I won’t hear his voice. This has been my life, and a lot of other families are also having a difficult time.”

On Saturday, Dec. 19, Alice, along with other family members rallied together at CTF to protest the prison’s lack of proper care and protocols for COVID-19. The protesters called for humane treatment and more releases of incarcerated people.

Alice explains, “I will always start with this: Basic human rights. No matter what I tell you right now, no matter what other concerns, there are, it’s basic human rights.” 

On Dec. 22, CDCR reported that CTF has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases across the system including seven deaths. CTF is conducting mass testing by administering two rounds of tests for the population every 14 days. Staff are mandated to undergo testing every seven days. 

CTF is also adhering to a 14-day modified program and meals are being delivered to cells. 

Alice highlights, “You can’t really social distance in prison. You live with a person in (a room) the size of a bathroom.” She goes on to describe how grueling the suspension of in-person visits have been for incarcerated people. 

“How are they supposed to feel?” Alice remarked.

CTF is requiring all staff to wear N95 masks. They converted the gym, two chapels and seven housing units into isolation wards. 

However, Alice claims staff are not always wearing masks and are not providing cleaning supplies. 

She asserts the phones are unreliable and video visits are haphazard. CDCR has made it clear that those in isolation and quarantine are not allowed to have video calls. 

CDCR officials claim, “The issue is bringing together groups that should be physically distanced. Depending on the prison, the availability of the internet access may be limited to only a few areas. It’s an evolving process and we’ve just begun rolling it out.”

CDCR officials also say canteen and packages are being offered to the population, with mail “processed and delivered on time.” Alice disagrees. She says the mailroom at CTF is swamped whenever she calls and CTF is failing to give timely notices and updates online about inmates. 

Alice, along with other families are worried about their loved ones’ mental and physical health. The last time she spoke to her husband a week ago, he told her, “People are cracking.” 

CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes

As of Dec. 26, there are a total of 37,276 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 6,682 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 24 percent of the cases are active in custody while 1.5 percent have been released while active. Roughly 73 percent of confirmed cases have been resolved.

There have been 114 deaths across the system. 126 people are currently receiving medical care at outside health care facilities.

In the past week, ten people have died from complications arising from COVID-19 at CSP, Corcoran, Correctional Training Facility, Pleasant Valley State Prison, Kern Valley State Prison, CSP Los Angeles County, California Health Care Facility and RJ Donovan Correctional Facility. This is the first death reported at RJD.

CDCR officials have withheld their identities citing medical privacy issues.

In the past week, prisons in Kern County have been facing their worst outbreak yet. Kern Valley State Prison, in particular, has reported a recent spike of 501 active cases.

“We are holding daily calls with department operations and health care leadership to ensure coordination and communication as we respond to the increase in positive COVID-19 cases at Kern Valley State Prison, North Kern State Prison and Wasco State Prison,” CDCR spokesperson Terri Hardy wrote in a response to The Californian’s questions, referencing three prisons in Kern County where the virus has recently spread. 

“We have implemented robust response and mitigation efforts such as increasing the frequency of testing, conducting contact tracing and implementing isolation and quarantine measures to mitigate spread of COVID-19,” she adds.

Not all prisons, however, have followed COVID-19 guidelines.

In November, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined Wasco State Prison $16,360 because they did not implement an effective disease control exposure plan.

Now, all prisons are following a statewide program, which limits the movement of staff and population and requires staff to use masks and PPE. 

According to CDCR, staff members who refuse to undergo mandatory COVID-19 testing will be sent home without pay and may be subject to the progressive discipline process.

While California Men’s Colony works to control the massive outbreak, Josie Gastelo, who served as the prison’s top administrator since 2016, will retire on Dec. 30. Her replacement has not yet been named.

Gastelo’s retirement comes as the prison implements intensive anti-coronavirus safety measures after reporting 334 positive cases within the last 14 days, nearly half of the prison’s total number of positive cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We are immediately responding to the increase in positive COVID-19 cases at California Men’s Colony by increasing the frequency of testing, conducting contact tracing, and implementing isolation and quarantine measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” said Lt. John Hill, spokesman for the CDCR at CMC.

In the past two weeks CSP Solano has tested the most individuals, 92 percent of its population.

Kern Valley State Prison has tested the least, just 10 percent of its population.

There are currently 95,897 incarcerated persons in California’s prisons – a reduction of 26,512 since March, when the prison outbreaks first began.

COVID-19 Vaccine

This week, CDCR and California Correctional Healthcare Services (CCHCS) received their first allocation of the COVID-19 vaccine and began administering them in accordance with state and federal guidelines.

Distribution of the vaccine in the prisons will be based on people’s risk factors and their interaction with potentially infected patients.

As of now, vaccinations are not mandatory but strongly encouraged. Anyone can opt out by signing a declination of service form. If they decline the vaccine now, they have the opportunity to get it later when the next batch is available.

Staff and the population will still need to practice COVID-19 protocols that are already in place even after being vaccinated.

At California Health Care Facility, 65 high-risk incarcerated people and employees volunteered to receive the vaccine on Tuesday. They were eligible under Phase 1A of the vaccine distribution plan.

Vaccines are also expected to arrive at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla and the California Medical Facility in Vacaville.

“Supply of the vaccine is limited and will be distributed according to state and federal guidelines,” said CCHCS in a statement. “Our first focus will be people at high risk of becoming infected or severely ill from COVID-19.”

Effect on Public

Demonstrators gathered at the Correctional Training Facility (CTF) in Soledad on Saturday to protest the institution’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just last week, the facility reported its sixth coronavirus-related death.

Calls for early releases were made by decarceration activists as well as friends and family members of incarcerated people. Courtney Morris, an Oakland-based activist for No Justice Under Capitalism (NJUC) believes that decarceration is the only way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.

“There’s more coronavirus within the prison system right now than there ever has been. Really, it’s been an ongoing crisis. We are at the current peak of it and it will only continue to get worse,” Morris told KSBW8 News.

According to Morris’ group, many within state prisons have effectively been given a death penalty sentence.

“NO STATE EXECUTION BY COVID-19!” reads the group’s Facebook and Twitter descriptions.

Other members of NJUC in attendance, including San Joaquin resident Dawn Marie, were quick to clear up any misconceptions about the group’s intentions.

“We’re not saying ‘open the gates and let them all out’, that’s definitely not what we’re saying,” said Marie, who currently has loved ones inside CTF. “[However] there’s definitely room for them to come home. You have elderly and sick in there; you have people close to coming home. Just review their cases and allow them to do so.”

Doubtful of CDCR statements on current safety measures, Morris believes that Gov. Gavin Newsom needs to assume a greater role in the decarceration process.

“If Gov. Newsom really wants to be remembered for being on the right side of history, he will grant mass releases. It just takes political courage,” Morris said.

Despite widespread criticism, CDCR has consistently defended their response to the pandemic. In a statement to KSBW8, they outlined a standing protocol at CTF, which includes increased testing, timely delivered meals, modified recreation and shower schedules, and the creation of quarantine areas, to name a few. 

But demonstrators questioned the efficacy of these measures. 

“These correctional officers, these nurses, these staff, go back home to the communities, that’s how the spread happens,” said Alex, another protestor at the demonstration. “It’s not just inside the prison. It’s after the fact and everything that they do out in the communities.”

Alex also raised concerns over placing recently-positive individuals in the same units as recovering individuals. 

“If you have one that’s ready to be released that day and one that’s coming in, those germs are going to be on that person leaving and you’re going to go back to an environment that has negatives and continue to spread,” Alex said.

CDCR Staff

There have been at least 11,105 cases of COVID-19 reported among prison staff. 11 staff members have died while 7,269 have returned to work. 3,836 cases are still active.

After nine months of the pandemic, CDCR has implemented mandatory testing for employees and mandated mask protocols. Due to the surge in cases, CDCR is requiring staff to wear surgical masks as well as sending home any staff members who refuse to adhere to mandatory testing. 

Those who refuse will also be subject to disciplinary action. If a staff member is unable to get a test due to a disability, they are asked to notify their supervisor and Return-to-Work Coordinator. A staff member can request religious accommodation by contacting a coordinator with Equal Employment Opportunity. 

If an employee refuses and cannot show that they tried to schedule a test within the given timeframe, they will go without pay. The Hiring Authority will submit a Confidential Request for Internal Affairs Investigation/Notice of Direct Adverse Action form. 

If a probationary employee refuses to get tested, the Hiring Authority will issue a notice of Rejection During Probation. 

All staff members and incarcerated people at the California Institution for Men (CIM) and California Institution for Women (CIW) are being tested on a regular basis. 

D. Glucksman, Associate Warden at CIW, says, “Inmates aren’t leaving, but staff is coming in. We have been evaluating to see how some can work from home to keep the virus out.” 

CDCR is providing masks for staff performing duties on institution grounds and additional PPE when needed.

According to Dana Simas, Press Secretary for CDCR, “Inmates are also being required to wear masks, however, there are different scenarios that govern which mask is required.” 

If they’re being transported between or throughout institutions, they’re required to wear N95 masks,” she said

If there is an outbreak, incarcerated people are offered N95s in housing units, but are not required to wear them. They are required to wear a cloth facial barrier. They must wear N95s or surgical masks if they are housed in a quarantine/isolation space and moving around the housing units for phones, showers, and other activities. 

In addition to responding to the surges in positivity rates, all prisons are under a mandatory modified program that limits the movement of both staff and inmates between and throughout institutions. 

Contact visiting, family visiting, and mixing of individuals between housing units has been strictly prohibited and occupancy will be reduced in the dayroom. Recreation will only be allowed for one housing unit or dorm at a time. An increased number of program materials, reading books, and games will be delivered to housing units

When it comes to the surgical mask requirement, Dr. Joseph Bick, M.D., statewide director for CCHCS expresses, “In spite of your efforts, we continue to see COVID outbreaks in our institutions, many of which have been linked back to staff not consistently following our policy on face coverings.” 

He also said CDCR has routinely received reports from inmates, family members, co-workers, and the Office of the Inspector General that staff is not always complying with masking policies. 

Dr. Bick firmly believes, “Let me be very clear, wearing masks at work is mandatory.”

He appears in the video instructing staff members to wear masks at work, and emphasizes that if they do not comply, they will be subject to disciplinary action. 

CDCR managers or supervisors are responsible for making sure staff comply with these requirements and report any non-compliance.

CDCR Comparisons – California and the US

According to the Marshall Project, California prisons rank second in the country for the highest number of confirmed cases, following Federal prisons. California makes up 11 percent of total cases among incarcerated people and 5.8 percent of the total deaths in prison.

California also makes up 13 percent of total cases and 8.8 percent of total deaths among prison staff.

Division of Juvenile Justice

As of Dec. 26, there is one active case of COVID-19 among youth at the Division of Juvenile Justice facilities. 119 cases have been resolved since the first case was diagnosed in June.

 

By Julietta Bisharyan, Nick Gardner and Jaskiran Soomal 

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About The Author

Aparna Komarla leads the Covid In-Custody project, which partners with the Davis Vanguard to bring reporting on the pandemic's impact on county jails and CDCR to the public eye. See www.covidincustody.org for more information.

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