Concerns Over CDCR’s Early-Release Programs; COVID-19 High-Risk Transfers Halted Indefinitely

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By Julietta Bisharyan, Nick Gardner and Jaskiran Soomal 

 

Incarcerated Narratives

40 year-old Michael Espitia is one of the 27 individuals set for early release this month. 

Espitia, who was convicted of second-degree murder as a teenager, has spent the past 20-plus years at Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran (SATF). SATF is among the state’s worst hit prison’s following a massive outbreak of COVID-19 in early November.

On the date Espitia’s request for parole was approved — Dec. 11 — 720 individuals within SATF were reported to be carrying the deadly virus.

Espitia will now have to wait a maximum of 120 days for the decision to be finalized by both the Board of Parole Hearings and Gov. Newsom. 

Espitia’s wife, Olga, described being in “shock” following news of her husband’s decision. While Olga is relieved to see Espitia’s release process set in motion, she is worried about the risk of contracting COVID-19 during his last 4 months behind bars. 

She says, “Sixty days, not 120 days, you know? I think 60 days is more than enough time for them to rethink their decision in a sense and get these signatures.”

In a statement to Action News, CDCR confirmed that parole hearings are being expedited, and that priority will be given to high risk individuals as well as those within institutions experiencing large outbreaks of COVID-19. 

On Sunday, family members of incarcerated people gathered at eight Central Valley prisons — Avenal State Prison, Pleasant Valley State Prison, CA State Prison Corcoran, and Substance Abuse Treatment Facility to protest CDCR’s response to the pandemic. 

However, certain CDCR decisions have sparked public outrage, especially from family members of victims and prosecution teams. The decision in early November to release Richard Anthony Sepolio, a disgraced Naval petty officer who killed four and injured several following an alcohol-induced car crash in San Diego, garnered widespread disapproval. 

Olga is aware of the gravity of her husband’s decision as a teenager, but wants people to know that he is truly regretful and ready to re-enter society as a reformed and productive individual.

“There’s nothing he can do to bring that individual back and I understand that and I feel for that family, those people,” Olga acknowledged. “But at the same time, he can make a difference to another child that’s out there thinking that they can go out and live life like this. He can make a difference to them.”

CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes

As of Dec. 18, 32,415 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in the CDCR system – 8,179 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 27 percent of the cases are active in custody, 1.6 percent have been released while active and 70 percent have been resolved.

There have been 104 deaths across CDCR. 106 persons are currently receiving medical care at outside healthcare facilities.

In the past week, eight COVID-19 related deaths were confirmed at Correctional Training Facility, California State Prison, Los Angeles County, Mule Creek State Prison, California Health Care Facility,  California State Prison, Solano and Valley State Prison.

CDCR officials have withheld their identities, citing medical privacy issues.

Currently, Correctional Training Facility (CTF) has the highest number of active cases across all facilities. As of Dec. 18, they report 714 active cases, of which 619 emerged in the last two weeks. Five individuals have also died from COVID-19. The latest death was reported on Dec. 11.

According to CDCR, CTF staff plan to install over 20 tents for patients requiring isolation or quarantine during an outbreak at the facility.

In a statement, CDCR says, “The well-being and safety of the incarcerated population and staff within CDCR and CCHCS is our top priority. We are immediately responding to the increase in positive COVID-19 cases at Correctional Training Facility with coordinated efforts to increase the frequency of testing, conduct contact tracing and implement isolation and quarantine measures to mitigate spread of COVID-19.”

On Dec. 15, CDCR announced that through Dec. 30, all institutions will extend the 14-day modified program, which limits movement of both staff and the incarcerated population to mitigate the spread of the virus.

In the past two weeks, Mule Creek State Prison has tested the most — 88 percent of its population and Chuckawalla Valley State Prison has tested the least — 29 percent of its population.

There are currently 96,358 incarcerated persons in California’s prisons – a reduction of 26,051 since March, when the prison outbreaks first began.

San Quentin

Private attorneys, public defenders and activists urged Gov. Newsom to stop transferring individuals from San Quentin to other CDCR facilities against their will. 

A letter sent on Friday, Dec. 11, to Gov. Newsom’s office reads, “…moving these persons now, during the height of a statewide surge of COVID-19 infections—both in CDCR and the free world—from a place with a very low infection rate appears ill-advised.”

Deputy San Francisco Public Defender Danica Rodarmel has been doubtful about transfers, especially since she has a relative in San Quentin. She explains, “ The ruling said that people at San Quentin should be released or transferred, only if the transfer can be done safely and there is nowhere safe to put people right now,” she said. “Every prison has an outbreak.” 

Public Defender Rodarmel and her team claim that transferring clients will negatively impact their ability to meet a “constitutional duty of effective representation…Dispersing our clients throughout the state will hamper our ability to work with our clients once pandemic-related restrictions on in-person legal visits are lifted.”

Nearly a week after sending Gov. Newsom the letter, COVID-19 related transfers have been “indefinitely paused.” However, transfers for reasons besides COVID-19 will continue. 

This decision came two days after 26 people from San Quentin were taken by bus to Corcoran State Prison where there is a massive outbreak. 

In confirming this decision, CDCR Spokeswoman Dana Simas says, “no additional medically high-risk transfers planned,” following the transfer of the 26 individuals out of San Quentin. 

Don Specter from the Prison Law Office supports this decision saying, “This is a good thing.” He is one of the attorneys fighting to release those who are medically high-risk from custody. 

Notably, in October, the First District Court of Appeals ruled that CDCR needed to reduce the population in San Quentin after the facility reported a total of 28 deaths from COVID-19. They recommended a reduction of 1,000 people via transfers or releases. 

Based on age and medical risk, public defenders are demanding the release of approximately 300 people. In response, prison officials represented by the Attorney General’s Office issued a statement expressing that they would rather spread them out at various facilities in the state instead of released them. There are ongoing court hearings in Marin County Superior Court to resolve the matter.

California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) stated, “In an effort to protect inmates, employees, and outside communities, CDCR and CCHCS are working closely together to identify space and coordinate the potential movement of some medically high-risk individuals in certain prisons from open dorm/open cell settings to housing with solid doors.”  

CDCR also developed a risk score for patients, asserting that each patient’s health care needs are being evaluated prior to transfer in order to ensure the continuity of care at the receiving facility. CCHCS states that they are closely monitoring every individual and that no moves would take place without a pre-approved authorization. 

CCHCS claims to notify high-risk inmates who have not been previously diagnosed with COVID-19 about potential moves and if they do not agree, they can file appeals. In another statement, CCHCS affirms, “It’s important to note that every safety precaution will be taken on any patient movement, including testing before and after any moves, quarantining upon arrival at the new housing location, and sanitation of all housing spaces prior to any movement.”

In addition to this recent decision, CDCR claims prison officials are working to provide safer housing for medically high-risk people by relocating them from an open dorm setting to housing with solid doors.

CDCR officials confirmed that the 26 people transferred from San Quentin had COVID-19 risk scores of six or greater, and are now on a 14-day quarantine. Officials emphasized that they tested negative twice before the transfer and will be tested again prior to quarantine release. 

Effect on Public

Despite initially rejecting calls for large-scale releases, over 7,500 individuals across CDCR have been granted an early release since the onset of the pandemic. A majority of those released had less than 180 days left on their sentence.

Around 6,500 individuals were identified as medically at-risk by CDCR. According to officials, “These individuals are not part of the rolling releases, and the number refers only to the number of people who are eligible for consideration. It does not equate to or represent a blanket release. These medically high-risk individuals will be evaluated for potential expedited release on a case-by-case basis, based upon public safety and public health considerations.” 

According to data as of Nov. 26, only 62 people were granted an early release solely based on their COVID-19 at-risk status. 

As of Dec. 18, over 32,000 positive cases and 104 deaths have been confirmed across the prison system. Release efforts are ongoing, however, CDCR as an aggregate remains overcrowded. 

The eligibility for early release is limited to those with pre-existing health conditions or less than a year remaining on their sentence. Those who were convicted for violent offenses, domestic abuse, or crimes that warrant sex-offender registration are exempt from the early release program. Among those who are eligible, the CDCR must determine them to be a low-risk for violence.

Protocol is slightly more lenient for medically at-risk individuals. These people can neither be serving life without parole, nor can they be on death row. High-risk sex offenders are also barred from seeking early release due to medical conditions, which include such conditions as asthma and obstructive pulmonary disease. 

Those convicted of property crimes comprise 32 percent of all early releases — the majority across all categories. 26 percent of releases were granted to those serving time for a crime against another person. 

According to CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas, release data from CDCR’s medically high-risk release program appears low due to “thousands of [high risk] inmates” being released under a different program. Simas told ABC10 that the CDCR is continuing to evaluate such individuals for “potential expedited release.”

A man at San Quentin, writing to ABC10 under the pseudonym “Vance” out of fear of retaliation by correctional officers, has fallen victim to the CDCR’s rigid medical release program.

Vance was convicted of second-degree murder after a fight ended with him firing his weapon into a crowd and killing a bystander. The incident, which occurred in the early ‘80’s, landed him an indeterminate sentence of 20-years-to-life. 

Vance first became eligible for parole 20 years ago— a process he describes as “mean[ing] nothing” and “layers and layers of bureaucracy without any real focus on public safety.” 

Less than a decade ago, a parole board found Vance to be “suitable for parole based on his age, nonviolent prison record, social history and juvenile record, parole plans, and adequate remorse.” However, the board’s decision was quickly overturned by Gov. Jerry Brown, who by California law has final say in the case of individuals sentenced indeterminately.

When COVID-19 first appeared in San Quentin mid-June, Vance voiced concern over his pre-existing conditions, which included a past heart attack and lung disease. Vance contracted a non-severe case of COVID-19, however given his health a second bout of the virus could accompany serious conditions. 

But since Vance is serving an indeterminate sentence, the CDCR denied his request for early release.

Vance is appealing the decision— which made no mention of his conditions— and was previously told that a verdict would return no later than October 26.

He is still waiting. 

“There’s nothing standard,” Vance told ABC10. “It’s just whatever they feel like doing at the moment, which is pretty much how everything within the Department of Corrections operates.”

Citing a Public Policy Institute of California study showing a 6 percent decrease in felony offender recidivism rates from 2011 to 2015, advocates have lobbied Gavin Newsom to expand the CDCR’s release program. 

“I think our best bet right now is for Gov. Newsom to act in a more robust and aggressive way to release people from prison, especially people who are going to be released anyway in one to two years,” said Yolo County Chief Public Defender Tracie Olson.

According to Janet Nguyen, a newly elected Republican Assemblymember from Garden Grove, “CDCR’s efforts are just another excuse to release prisoners into our community.”

Nguyen made reference to a non-registered sex offender who had been released from a state hospital recently despite vocally describing his desire to rape and kill young boys. The man, 59 year-old Cary Jay Smith, had also made claims of killing three children and molesting over 200, and news of his release came to the dismay of Nguyen’s constituency. However, Smith was not under the jurisdiction of the CDCR and was not released under any early release program.

In Stanislaus County, police arrested a man connected to a Modesto murder who had recently been released among 162 others due to COVID-19 concerns. Similarly, a recently-released man in San Joaquin County was arrested following the murder of his two month-old son.

For Nguyen, even the slim prospect of violent recidivism in enough to discourage early releases.

“One child who gets killed is more than enough for me.” 

CDCR Staff

There have been at least 9,901 cases of COVID-19 reported among prison staff, of which 6,667 have returned to work and 3,234 cases are still active. 11 staff members have died. 6,667 have returned to work. 3,234 are still active.

The most recent COVID-19 related staff death was reported at Mule Creek State Prison (MCSP) on Dec. 14.

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 prison population and 5.8 percent of the total deaths.

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. 18, there are six active cases of COVID-19 among youth at the Division of Juvenile Justice facilities. 113 cases have been resolved since the first case was detected in June.

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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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