“Correctional Officers tell nurses to call for ambulances, nurses ignore them” – COVID-19 Stories from CDCR’s CA Medical Facility

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By Mengyu Yang

This account is part 14 of the Vanguard’s series on COVID-19 stories from CDCR. Click here for part 13 and here for part 12. 

Olivia Campbell is an advocate for prison reform and has been bringing attention to COVID-related negligence in CDCR. She spoke to the Vanguard about the dire conditions incarcerated men at CA Medical Facility (CMF) are facing as a result of the prison’s mishandling of COVID-19 outbreaks. 

As of January 29, CMF has had 695 total confirmed cases, within a population of 1991 people. It has reported 8 deaths thus far. 

The number of positive cases increased from 2 to 58 in just 5 days. There was not a single drop in numbers until January 6, 25 days into the outbreak, with the numbers going up as much as 50 or 58 in a single day on a few occasions.

According to Olivia, CMF went under lockdown on December 12 due to the rising cases. 

Prior to the outbreak, she says correctional officers refused to wear masks and the incarcerated population had no access to cleaning supplies for months. “Some [officers] are moving around from positive to negative units, socializing with other [officers].” 

Moreover, new masks were not distributed to the population until December 24– 12 days after the outbreak. Before that, some had to use old masks that had “worn out to the point of being defective.” 

Those who tested positive are being sent to D-dorm for quarantine. Before the pandemic, it was used to house dogs being trained by incarcerated men through the Paws for Life program. The dorms are less than sanitary, as they were not cleaned prior to establishing it as a quarantine unit. 

“Staff are not stepping up to help to clean, and the few incarcerated who are well enough to clean are not being given adequate cleaning supplies,” Olivia says.

Further, since many prison workers are out sick, the laundry service has halted. Those who experience diarrhea as a symptom of COVID-19, have soiled themselves and do not have access to clean clothes. “Each person is only being given one roll of toilet paper per week, which is not nearly enough for people who are experiencing severe diarrhea.”

Regarding the lack of medical attention, Olivia describes how nurses are refusing to go bed to bed to check on people in D-dorm, and instead yell for everyone to line up in the middle to have their vitals taken. “They expect sick and bedridden people to line up in the middle of the dorm.” As a result, those who are too sick and unable to move, miss the checkup entirely and are neglected when their conditions become life-threatening

When a man fainted and defecated on himself, medical staff refused to respond to the call for help. Other incarcerated people cleaned him up and carried him to his bed before he was finally taken to an outside hospital. Olivia suspects that due to the on-going Plata litigation, staff are hesitant to call ambulances because it would reflect badly on them.

“The nurses would rather refuse to get people the proper medical attention they need than make it look like they’re incapable of caring for them at the prison. Correctional officers tell the nurses to call for ambulances, the nurses ignore them,” she says. 

The outbreak at CMF has affected day-to-day operations at the prison. For example, there is a shortage of kitchen staff since many are out sick. While the prison allows men to cook their own food and provides raw ingredients to do so, many are too sick to cook for themselves. Together, it has led to a massive food shortage and hunger.

Further, the food portions are too small for an adult male’s diet. People with special dietary needs are not receiving proper foods. “Food situation is deplorable,” she remarks.

Additionally, many are feeling mentally distressed from the anxiety and fear of contracting COVID-19 and being neglected by medical staff. “There is little to no yard time, little to no access to showers, and little to no access to contact family members,” says Olivia. Many scheduled video visits are cancelled, sometimes 30-40 minutes before the scheduled time. 

Olivia fears that this could lead to suicides or permanent psychological harm for many. 

Within the incarcerated population, she feels that those with disabilities are worse-hit. “People with disabilities are required to be accommodated under the Americans with Disabilities Act,” she contends. “No alternative accommodations for the disabled at CMF have been offered.”

While access to phones is generally restricted, those who are hearing-impaired are “barred from specially-equipped phones they would normally use.” Those with disabilities are assigned ADA workers– other incarcerated men who assist them with daily tasks. However, many workers are out sick, leaving them with no support for simple tasks like pushing one’s wheelchair around. 

Further since there are not enough wheelchair-accessible single cells to facilitate quarantines, CMF used a dorm that can house 21 wheelchair-users to segregate positive patients, which spread the virus more.

Little to no remedies are offered to those with severe symptoms. Though by law incarcerated people should be given access to over the counter medications, CMF is failing to do so. Olivia recounts few individuals who were offered antibody treatment, but says this is an exception rather than the norm since “most aren’t even getting Tylenol.”

Many at CMF are extremely high-risk for developing severe illness related to COVID-19. According to CA Correctional Healthcare Services’ (CCHCS) medical risk score, anyone with >4 points would be considered “medically-vulnerable.” Olivia states that CMF houses with risk scores as high as 16.

“No matter what people did, they do not deserve to go through this,” she concluded. 

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