Pandemic Heightens Medical Negligence, Staff Abuse Concerns at CA Medical Facility & Pelican Bay

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


Incarcerated Narratives

California Medical Facility has faced an array of problems throughout the pandemic. The facility lacks proper heating, air conditioning, and poor ventilation despite it being a medical facility for vulnerable patients. 

Notably, during last year’s atrocious wildfire season, the Vacaville fire came within miles of CMF, but despite it being on the evacuation map, prison officials deemed it unnecessary to evacuate the prison and its neighboring facility, CSP Solano. 

There have been reports of instances where correctional officers, have refused to wear masks. An anonymous report from an incarcerated person describes how they were walked to the shower by a CO who was not wearing a mask. Next day, that same CO tested positive for COVID-19.

A CDCR and CCHCS spokesperson explained, “We take the proper use of PPE, including facial coverings very seriously. CMF as well as other institutions have notified staff in a multitude of venues, including policy memos, the requirement of wearing a mask. This policy is continuously monitored. If there are deficiencies noted then actions are taken via the disciplinary process.” 

The pandemic and fire season are not the only stressors on CMF, the facility has had a long history of substandard medical care as documented by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). In both of its 2016 and 2017 medical inspections, CMF was rated as “inadequate” in its overall assessment in areas including preventive services, quality of provider performance, and quality of nursing performance. 

Some of the substandard practices include failure to follow proper hand sanitization procedures, lack of timely and proper medication administration and follow-up tests, failure to adequately take action in response to injuries and medical assessments, and failure to perform face-to-face assessments on sick call requests or administer medications ordered by a provider. 

Sick calls not being answered by medical staff is being amplified by the pandemic. Olivia Campbell, who is a prisoner support advocate shares on one instance, a patient inside the COVID-19 wing was so ill he lost consciousness and defecated on himself. Other prisoners in the wing had to clean him and the area and then transport him to bed because nursing staff refused to enter or respond to their earlier calls for assistance. 

CCHCS claims CMF has, “designated units for isolation of positive patients according to their specific bed needs” and that they also “quarantine units or specific incarcerated individuals, should they be deemed a potential exposure.”

After an explosive outbreak at CMF, there has been nothing but widespread fear because tests are rumored to be highly inaccurate, and a positive test means the removal to one of the quarantine wings. These wings are either overcrowded and either badly ventilated inside or located in tents somewhere on prison grounds. A lot of individuals do not request medical care if they are feeling ill because they are afraid of what a positive COVID-19 test would mean for their health than whatever illness they might be already suffering from. 

For Jasmine Jones who works for prisoner support and was previously incarcerated at CMF, the trend of hiding COVID-19 symptoms to avoid horrible quarantine conditions is not limited to CMF, but other CDCR facilities as well. 

Even with the release of a vaccine, things still look fearful for most. A large concern for these prisoner advocates is that not enough people within CDCR facilities will opt in to receive the vaccine once its available. Decades of medical experimentation in prison facilities have degraded the trust of medical professionals among the incarcerated population. 

A lot of individuals in CMF who have pre-existing medical conditions do not feel confident that they will not suffer adverse effects from the vaccine. In addition, complaints of medical neglect are quickly dismissed. Martha Pulizzano shared how her husband, James who is incarcerated at CMF, is physically disabled. James is an amputee and has to use a prosthetic leg with an articulated knee to walk as well as little strength and problems moving his arms. 

James’ prosthetic leg has been broken since 2018, leaving him with severely limited mobility. The well-detailed medical complaint he filed was rejected by all three levels of internal CDCR appeals for failure to “separate your medical issues (disagreement with treatment for a rash, prosthetic leg and associated symptoms, and an early release due to COVID-19) and your mental health issues (EOP programming and depression/anxiety medications) as medical and mental health are two different health care disciplines.”

James requested a single-occupancy cell because the past several cellmates he’s had looked or talked about harming him, and James has not felt safe since. Despite having documentation explaining he is “incapable of protecting [himself] from another” his request was denied because CMF claimed its status as a facility that caters to medically vulnerable individuals means James “does not have a higher risk of victimization than other inmates currently housed at CMF.” 

“He just wanted to survive.” 

John Huh is also incarcerated at CMF currently serving a 28 year sentence. His family has been desperately trying to reach out to someone who would listen to his situation inside. John was promised release in a year and half, but has not only had to deal with the pandemic, but threats on his life as well since transferring to CMF a year ago. 

John’s sister says, “One day my brother called me, crying for help, because he just wanted to survive. He was actually happy he was going to go there, and it’s just been dreadful for him.”

CMF’s medical care protocols are now run through CDCR and CCHCS after its contract with the California Department of State Hospitals was not renewed in 2017. This means the standard of care has shifted dramatically over the last four years. 

Additionally, members of the LGTBQ community suffer a lot in CDCR facilities. An anonymous source explains how his partner, a transgender woman currently incarcerated in CMF has been in ad-seg (administrative segregation) since August for a suicide attempt after being forced to share a cell with a man who made threats against her. 

His partner’s troubles don’t stop there. A doctor revealed to her whole of her HIV-positive status to her hall and on another occasion, and she felt her rights violated against the Prison Rape Elimination Act, PREA) when a doctor demanded she remove her shirt when alone with during a routine checkup. 

Her complaints have been rejected to the point her partner reached out for legal support from the Transgender and Intersex Justice Project, TGIJP. Prisoners cannot file lawsuits against CDCR or a specific facility, but can only sue individuals like COs and medical personnel. However, the process is very difficult because forms aren’t available and when complaints are filed, most of the time they just “vanish.” 

Retaliation is another huge threat to those who file complaints because COs will come into an individual’s cell, turn it out, and find a weapon when they don’t even have one in order to fabricate evidence and cause a stir to add more charges on the individual’s record. CDCR claims it fully investigates complaints of retaliation and takes appropriate action, but no specific details are provided. 

Unfortunately, OIG does not have the authority to make changes within CDCR and CCHCS, only the legislature and governor have this power. 

“I just want people to understand that CMF is not what they think it is, these issues extend so long before the pandemic; the pandemic is horrific and it’s being mishandled. But it’s not just that,” says Olivia Campbell, a prisoner support advocate.

CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes

As of Feb. 12, there have been a total of 48,654 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 1,296 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 1,470 cases are active in custody while 694 were released while active. A total of 46,283 confirmed cases have been resolved since the start of the pandemic.

There have been 207 deaths within the CDCR facilities. 37 incarcerated persons are currently receiving medical care at outside healthcare facilities.

In the past week, eight incarcerated persons have reportedly died from complications related to COVID-19 at California Health Care Facility, California Medical Facility, Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, California Men’s Colony,  Mule Creek State Prison and CSP Solano.

CDCR officials have withheld their citing medical privacy issues. 

As of Feb. 12, 52,096 individuals have received first-round vaccines statewide. 24,088 are staff members and 28,008 are of the incarcerated population.

In the past two weeks, Substance Abuse Treatment Facility has tested the most– 56 percent of its population.

Folsom State Prison has tested the least– 13 percent of its population.

There are currently 94,404 incarcerated persons in California’s prisons – a reduction of 28,005 since March 2020, when the prison outbreaks first began.

Effect on Public

During the height of the pandemic in July, Sacramento-based labor union SEIU 1000 filed a grievance against Pelican Bay State Prison alleging that the institution lacked adequate safety measures to protect staff from a potential outbreak. 6 months later, union representatives claim that a rift still exists between essential healthcare workers and the prison’s upper management.

According to a district bargaining representative and Pelican Bay dental assistant Laura Slavec, nursing shortages and high turnover rates have compromised staff safety, with some nurses forced to bear three or four positions per shift in response to the prison’s 25 percent vacancy rate among the cohort. This, Slavec admits, is an issue that pre-dates COVID yet continues to evade resolution by Pelican Bay’s upper management. 

The union’s grievance surfaced in July amidst reports of large case outbreaks at CDCR facilities, namely San Quentin, which saw an increase of over 2,000 cases in a mere one-month period. At the time, Pelican Bay had managed to safeguard its incarcerated population from the virus, although fluctuations in cumulative case reports raised questions as to the accuracy of the prison’s claims. 

However, as of Feb. 10, Pelican Bay has amounted 210 cases— a number that has been steadily increasing since the pandemic’s second wave swept through the CDCR around November. This, Slavec says, has only intensified the prison’s outstanding issues, which she believes will only persist lest unionized management and staff are able to come to terms.

“We cannot keep staff at Pelican Bay,” Slavec confessed. “Recruiting them hasn’t been an issue, but retaining them has been an issue. And the reason, a lot of it, has to do with the way they’re being treated either by their immediate supervisor or when they raise concerns to upper management. [Their concerns] pretty much fall by the wayside.”

As of present, The SEIU 1000’s grievance has been denied by both the CDCR and CCHCS, leaving union representatives to bargain through monthly committee meetings with labor management personnel. According to Slavec, these meetings have shown no sign of resolving Pelican Bay’s nursing staff situation thus far, with management citing low housing availability in Del Norte County in response to union inquiries into recruiting efforts.

In a statement to the Wild Rivers Outpost, the CCHCS acknowledged receipt of the issue and outlined strategies being implemented by the department, which includes a “hybrid recruitment effort” targeting potential employees through both print and online job listings.

“Recruitment efforts focus on professional organizations’ website job postings, email campaigns through, social media posts and local print advertisement extending into Oregon,” a CCHCS representative affirmed. “CCHCS is also expanding its educational outreach to various community colleges and professional schools in the Northern California/Oregon border area to reach alumni and current student populations.”

CCHCS efforts, which Slavec describes as a “step in the right direction,” have also included increases in monetary incentives for new recruits— who are now coming from as far as Louisiana, New York, and Chicago— as well as the onboarding of COVID-specific staff.

But as for initiative by Pelican Bay’s management, there is still a lot left to be changed.

“We just want management to treat our people with respect and dignity,” Slavec said. “If that happened and we were to work as a team, our institution would be the one to work at. We just need management to get on board.”

The union’s nearly 400 healthcare and administrative staff first voiced concern over conditions at Pelican Bay following large outbreaks at San Quentin and other CDCR facilities during the pandemic’s devastating first wave.

CDCR Staff

There have been at least 15,504 cases of COVID-19 reported among prison staff. 25 staff members have died while 14,857 have returned to work. 647 cases are still active.

CDCR Comparisons – California and the US

According to the Marshall Project, California prisons rank first in the country for the highest number of confirmed cases. Federal prisons follow closely behind while Texas ranks third. 

California makes up 12.8 percent of total cases among incarcerated people and 8.5 percent of the total deaths in prison.

California also makes up 15 percent of total cases and 14 percent of total deaths among prison staff.

Division of Juvenile Justice

As of Feb. 12, there is one active case of COVID-19 among youth at the Division of Juvenile Justice facilities. 202 cases have been resolved since the first case was diagnosed 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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