91 Percent of CDCR COVID-19 Deaths Were Low-Risk to Public Safety; 70 Percent Were People of Color

By Mengyu Yang

This report is written by the Covid In-Custody Project — an independent journalism project that partners with the Davis Vanguard to bring reporting on the pandemic in California’s county jails and Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to the public eye. Visit our website to view and download raw data on cases, testing, releases and vaccinations. 

As of Jan 28, 2021, there have been 192 deaths from COVID-related complications across California’s 35 state prisons. The number of deaths reported have surged in the past month– increasing by over 30 percent. CDCR reported 63 deaths in January 2021 alone, whereas 64 were recorded between June to October of last year. 

While CDCR reports the number of COVID-related deaths on its Population COVID-19 Tracker, information about who is dying is largely unavailable to the public. 

Michael Bien, a senior attorney and co-founder of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP, shared a first-look at risk scores, age and ethnicities of those who died from the virus across CDCR. Michael and his office have been tracking non-published statistics on COVID-19 in prisons through their lawsuits against CDCR and the State, particularly Plata v. Newsom and Coleman v. Newsom.

According to the data, among the 153 deaths as of January 11, 70 percent were people of color– 39 percent Hispanic and 24 percent Black. 45 of those who died were white and 107 were people of color. 

Further, 75 percent of them had either mental or ADA recognized disabilities; 53 were receiving CCCMS– CDCR’s lowest level of mental health care and 6 were receiving EOP– CDCR’s highest level of outpatient mental health care. 

The average age of all deaths is 63 years. The CDC recognizes that people in their 60s – 70s are at high-risk for severe illness, while those 85 or older have the greatest risk. 

Design capacity refers to the number of beds CDCR would operate if a facility housed one person per cell and did not “double-bunk” in dormitories and provides insight into the population density of facilities. As of December 31, 2020, although the population across CDCR has been at record low levels, the state prison system is still at 106.5 of design capacity. Overcrowding in carceral settings is a major contributor to the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19. Among those who died, 84 lived in cells and 50 lived in dorms.

Perhaps the most staggering statistic is– 139 people or 91 percent of the deceased had “low” California Static Risk Assessment (CSRA) scores. Meaning, according to the CSRA formula and evaluation, they were low-risk to reoffend based on their age, gender and offense if released into the community. Only 2 people or 1.3 percent had “high” CSRA scores. 

21 people were eligible for parole prior to 2020 and 7 during 2020, i.e. 18 percent of the deceased had completed their minimum sentence before or during 2020. 14 people would have been eligible in 2021. 

Once one’s minimum sentence is complete, the CSRA system is utilized to determine if they are ready to be released into the community.

Given that many were low-risk to public safety and eligible for parole, it begs the question of whether they could have been granted early-release from prison.

The spread of outbreaks in prisons is almost unavoidable due to the absence of proper healthcare, medical negligence, and inability to socially distance. According to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, the infection rate among incarcerated people across the United States is 4.5 times higher than rates among the general public. 

As a result, it is widely agreed that reducing prison populations is the key to controlling the pandemic behind bars. 

Lawyers and activists have been advocating for population reduction through early-releases and sentence reductions. In July, CDCR announced three early-release programs for those with 180-days or less, 365 days or less or those who are medically vulnerable and high-risk. Over 6,000 people were eligible under the third category, but only 1,300 were ultimately evaluated. Gov. Newsom granted sentence reductions to 12 people, but released none, before CDCR suspended the program in October. 

Many who are serving indeterminate sentences and have exceeded their Minimum Eligible Parole Date (MEPD), i.e. are eligible for parole as of today, could not apply for early-release under the 180-day or 365-day programs. However, they were eligible under the high-risk category if they had a medical risk score of four or higher, were not serving life without parole (LWOP), had a “low” CSRA score, and were not a high-risk sex offender. 

Those who are 65 or older automatically earned four points on the medical risk score, which is outlined by the California Correctional Healthcare Services (CCHCS) points system.

Among those who died, many were over the age of 65, had “low” risk CSRA scores and were not serving LWOP, i.e. they met all the stipulations and could have been eligible for early-release. 

CDCR has not shown any inclination towards reinstating their high-risk medical release program or expanding early-releases in alternate ways. With rising infection rates and outbreaks at nearly every facility, the death toll is bound to climb. It leaves the question–

Were the 153 deaths avoidable? How many avoidable deaths will CDCR report until the pandemic ends? 









Michael W. Bien’s presentation at ACS Bay Area: Covid in Custody

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 www.covidincustody.org for more information.

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