By David M. Greenwald
The news this week is that San Quentin now faces California’s single largest penalty yet over workplace safety violations leading to the spread of COVID-19, according to a report from the state released on Thursday. The prison faces a whopping $421,880 fine stemming from an inspection last June by Cal/OSHA.
“Sad to say we told you so CA…. San Quentin State prison issued largest COVID-19 penalty due to uncontrolled outbreaks and suffering,” a legislative leader tweeted this week.
While that may not be that surprising in and of itself, the fact that it was tweeted by Republican Minority Leader Marie Waldron might catch one’s attention.
The Escondito Assembly Republican has introduced legislation, AB 2876, that has the support from advocacy groups like #Cut50, Dream Corps, The Anti-Recidivism Coalition, REFORM Alliance and other criminal justice reform groups.
In a release, her office explains that AB 2876, with an urgency clause, “creates a working task force, requiring the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to take recommendations from stakeholders in developing and implementing the plans.”
It notes: “Literally thousands of recent media reports have provided ample evidence of problems in California prisons, including: overcrowding and lack of adequate space, lack of access to physical and mental health care, safety equipment and sanitary supplies…”
Moreover, nationally, eight of the top 10 COVID hotspots are prisons “despite expert consensus that the true number of prison cases have been undercounted.
“Nationwide, eight of the top 10 COVID hotspots are prisons. Worse yet, experts agree that prison cases have been severely undercounted,” Waldron said. “My hope is that the governor and my colleagues in the Legislature have finally recognized the seriousness of the situation and will commit to working on improving conditions and safety in our correctional facilities.”
The release continues: “In some of the more wrenching cases, a woman serving time for a minor drug offense died from COVID after giving birth while on a ventilator; a prisoner in California described the anguish of not being able to communicate with his son, who was dying of cancer, due to COVID-related restrictions; and California correctional officers have reported sleeping in their cars or garages after long shifts, because they are afraid of passing COVID along to their families…
“California must immediately mitigate potential negative health and safety outcomes by updating necessary plans for prison/jail safety protocols and infrastructure throughout the state,” they continue, noting that overcrowding and inhuman conditions “have exacerbated the problems.”
Waldron last summer called the release of 8000 CDCR incarcerated people by Governor Newsom “a major step.
“The coronavirus brings into focus the serious threat that a pandemic and other disasters can inflict on the incarcerated population, staff and criminal justice operations in our state,” she said.
She added, “Recent media reports have exposed many problems in California’s prisons, including a lack of space, access to physical and mental healthcare, safety equipment and sanitary supplies, as well as shutdowns of services, building deficiencies, increased trauma due to disruptions in communication with loved ones, and of course a general lack of preparedness by the state.”
In assessing the huge fine, “Cal/OSHA determined that San Quentin staff were not provided adequate training or equipment for working with COVID-19 infected individuals, and employees who had been exposed to COVID-19 positive inmates were not provided proper medical services, including testing, contact tracing and referrals to physicians or other licensed health care professionals,” according to a division statement.
CDCR countered, “San Quentin State Prison has made many improvements and already remedied several of the citations in the eight months since Cal/OSHA visited the institution. The visits took place last June and July, and we have worked with Cal/OSHA representatives throughout the pandemic to ensure regulations were met and concerns addressed expeditiously,” a statement reads in part.
In a statement this week, Waldron said, “Early on, I repeatedly warned that the COVID situation in state prisons needed to be addressed and that the decision to rush prisoner transfers without taking proper precautions would endanger the lives of prison workers and incarcerated persons alike—unfortunately, my worst fears were realized.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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