Concerns Regarding Early-Releases and Vaccinations Rise As Outbreaks Snowball Across CDCR

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

Incarcerated Narratives

COVID-19 cases are continuing to spike across California prisons. Chris Washington is incarcerated at Salinas Valley State Prison (SVSP). He told The Mercury that an outbreak occurred at SVSP after him and others were transferred from the prison’s D Facility to A Facility.

Chris was transferred from yard-to-yard despite exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. He wrote his, “many, many” requests for medical assistance, but they were all ignored especially after his protests for being transferred from D to A. 

Chris explains, “I was finally given a COVID-19 tests where I tested positive.” He added, “The test was not given to me until I transferred from the ‘D’ Facility to ‘A’ Facility…staff knew that I was a high risk to contracting COVID-19 but staff refused to help.” 

According to CDCR, the outbreak at SVSP last August and September led to dozens of cases and one death in late August. In order to contain the virus, staff reportedly quarantined everyone who tested positive into a single building. 

CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas said she could not comment on specific allegations, but claims CDCR is following guidelines laid out by the California Correctional Healthcare Services (CCHCS). 

Simas explains, “If an inmate is identified as a close contact to a COVID-19 patient the inmate may be moved to a designated quarantine housing unit where they receive regular testing and health care screenings multiple times a day. If the patient subsequently tests positive, that patient is moved away from those who are not reported positive and placed into a designated isolation housing unit where only positive patients are housed.” 

The pandemic has taken the lives of over 130 incarcerated people and staff. Over the past two weeks prisons across California have seen an explosion of new cases with over 7,400 new confirmed cases. 

More than 500 new cases were identified at Sierra Conservation Center (SCC) in Jamestown and 400 were confirmed at Mule Creek State Prison (MCSP) and Correctional Training Facility (CTF) in Soledad.

Notably, CTF is on the same property as SVSP and has logged in more than 100 new cases over the past two weeks. 

Infections are increasing and Chris believes this is in part due to unnecessary yard-to-yard transfers in addition to neglectful staff who are ignoring requests for assistance from those who are already medically vulnerable.

“This cannot keep happening,” he concludes.

CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes

As of Jan. 2, there have been 40,849 total confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 6,374 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 21 percent of the cases are active in custody while 1.4 percent have been released while active. Roughly 77 percent of confirmed cases have been resolved.

There have been 129 deaths across CDCR. 136 incarcerated persons are currently receiving medical care at outside healthcare facilities .

In the past week, 15 people died from complications related to COVID-19 at RJ Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD), California Correctional Institution (CCI),  California State Prison, Los Angeles County (LAC), Kern Valley State Prison (KVSP) and  Correctional Training Facility (CTF).

This is the first death reported at CCI.

CDCR officials have withheld their citing medical privacy issues. 

On Dec. 28, CDCR issued a mandatory 7-day Modified Program Extension from Dec. 31 to Jan. 6, 2021 to limit the movement of both staff and the population between and within institutions. 

This includes staggered dining and recreation to allow for physical distancing and disinfection processes between use. According to CDCR, only essential transfers will be conducted under the CDCR/CCHCS Patient Movement Matrix, which dictates mandatory testing and quarantine timeframes for all transfers.

At California Medical Facility (CMF) in Vacaville, tents have been erected to enable social distancing amidst the on-going outbreak at the prison.

Currently, there are 425 active cases at CMF. No deaths were reported.

“The well-being and safety of the incarcerated population and staff within CDCR and CCHCS is our top priority,” officials said in a statement issued by the Office of Public and Employee Communications.

“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 CMF.”

According to County Officials, the outbreak began on Christmas Eve.

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

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

There are currently 95,456 incarcerated persons in California’s prisons – a reduction of 26,953 since March 2020, when the prison outbreaks first began.

Effect on Public

Coronavirus cases in California state prisons are running rampant once again, and so are public calls for mass decarceration.

As of Dec. 31, over 7,800 cases remain active in custody throughout CDCR and nearly 130 people have died.

Over a third of these cases were reported since the beginning of November.

“In the last nine months the state had a chance to do the right thing, they didn’t and now people inside are terrified,” said Hadar Aviram, a law professor at UC Hastings and leading commentator on legal proceedings surrounding COVID-19 in CDCR.

In April, The Guardian spoke with Alicia Rhoden, who voiced concern over her husband Bruce’s health while under CDCR supervision. Following the large spike in cases in November, Bruce was no longer able to outmaneuver the virus.

Bruce, a 62 year-old resident at Wasco State Prison (WSP) is serving the last year of a four-year sentence for assault with a deadly weapon. He is categorized as high-risk due to his age and underlying health conditions, which include HIV and diabetes. 

According to Rhoden, a whole month elapsed between the time her husband was diagnosed and when she was notified of his condition. During this time, Bruce had spent nine days in an outside hospital before returning to WSP’s general population after only a 5-day quarantine.

Although he is not COVID-19 positive anymore, his underlying health conditions have caused his symptoms to linger. He now requires constant blood thinners to combat the hemorrhaging that has occurred in his leg.

“What if he dies in there?” Rhoden remarked.

The recent resurgence of prison outbreaks has reinvigorated calls by advocates to widen the scope of the CDCR’s early-release efforts. 

CDCR claims to have released over 18,300 individuals thus far, however, many high-risk individuals were deemed ineligible for such action. 

Furthermore, recent trends in releases have been unsatisfactory to decarceration advocates. From Oct. 21 to Dec. 16, only 625 people were granted an early release. The state’s medical release program– touted as a solution for high-risk individuals behind bars— has only released 63 people on the sole basis of their medical status. 

In a recent statement, Gov. Newsom informed the public that he was conducting individual reviews of potential candidates for release, which includes assessing risk and notifying victims of possible action.

“I simply will not mass release people without looking individual by individual,” Newsom said on Monday. “I respect those who want to bypass protocols but we are moving in a different direction.”

According to CDCR, only a small number of releases were done under the high-risk program because many high-risk individuals were released under other categories they were eligible for. For example, a medically vulnerable person with less than 180 days left on their sentence qualifies for release by virtue of sentence time and is thus not “solely” released due to medical conditions.

As advocates continue to push for decarceration for those with violent convictions, political obstacles have inevitably arisen. 

This has made it difficult for people such as Fred Rhoeler to be released from dangerous prison environments. Rhoeler, who is 78 years old, was sentenced to life without parole in 1981, and recently contracted COVID-19 in a large outbreak that affected over 800 people at a Los Angeles County prison. However, Rhoeler is ineligible for early-release under CDCR requirements, and his only avenue for seeking action is through the governor’s office.

“It would be scary if he got Covid while he was out here but it’s terrifying knowing that he’s positive there, and if he gets really sick CDCR would have to take him to a hospital that’s already overrun,” said Kristen, Rhoeler’s daughter.

As California rushes to construct an implementation plan for the COVID-19 vaccines approved last month, lawyers and doctors have encouraged state officials to prioritize correctional facilities. 

Unsurprisingly, CDCR’s decision to prioritize convicted felons for a highly coveted vaccine has received ample public criticism. Furthermore, many families distraught by CDCR’s response to the pandemic now place little faith in the department to do right by their loved ones.

“CDCR has proven that they don’t have people’s health and safety in mind. People call me to say their loved ones in prisons won’t trust that a CDCR doctor with a clear liquid wants the best for them,” said Hadar Aviram.

CDCR Staff

There have been at least 12,358 cases of COVID-19 reported among prison staff. 11 staff members have died while 8,025 have returned to work. 4,333 cases are still active.

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 Jan. 2, there are 16 active cases of COVID-19 among youth at the Division of Juvenile Justice facilities. 119 cases have been resolved since the first case was identified in June.


By Julietta Bisharyan, Nick Gardner and Jaskiran Soomal 

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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