By Julietta Bisharyan, Nick Gardner and Alexis Hogan
Davis Vanguard’s weekly highlights from CDCR’s COVID-19 crisis
The following previews a story originally published by San Quentin News. For an expanded account, visit https://sanquentinnews.com/elderly-san-quentin-men-struggle-with-covid-restrictions/
At many facilities, COVID-19 restrictions called for the suspension of academic, religious, physical therapy and peer support programs. The absence of these programs, which garner significant participation amongst elderly residents, has been devastating for many. In a recent San Quentin News feature, residents Leonard King, Steven Rothschild, and Jose Hurtado elaborated on the challenges of prison life without crucial resources.
For King, an amputee, restrictions on the frequency of physical therapy visits has impaired his progress in learning how to walk again.
For Rothschild, pandemic-induced suspensions have halted his computer coding education. A member of the Prison Industry Authority’s (PIA) Last Mile coding program, Rothschild lamented the combination of old age and lack of repetition that has negated efforts made prior to COVID-19’s arrival in April. “Senior citizens don’t retain information as well as young people,” Rothschild told San Quentin News. “I have lost much of what I have learned. There is no substitute for practice, practice, practice and this is unattainable without my workstation.”
Should Rothscild’s concerns prove true, the 75-year old will likely fail to qualify for the next level of the class, which has adverse implications for both his personal development as well as his resume for early release.
Jose Hurtado shares similar concerns. “COVID-19 robbed me of earning good time credits,” the 65-year old remarked. “I haven’t been able to be oriented or participate in any self-help programs.”
“I can’t attend a church, which is something that helps me in maintaining a healthy spirit,” Hurtado added. “The lack of religious services have also made me depressed and sad. When we don’t have activities and just sit in our cells it’s very depressing. Now, I am being transferred out to [CSP] Corcoran and I am afraid that I will get COVID-19 at my new prison.”
For more, visit https://sanquentinnews.com/elderly-san-quentin-men-struggle-with-covid-restrictions/
CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes
As of May 8, there have been a total of 49,230 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 16 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 17 cases are active in custody while 611 have been released while active. A total of 48,380 confirmed cases have been resolved since the start of the pandemic and 222 individuals have died.
According to a CDCR spokesperson, the recent changes to the Good Conduct Credit (GCC) program are increasing the rate at which “incarcerated individuals are able to receive credits for good behavior.”
Good conduct credits and educational achievements may help move up a person’s release date or parole hearing date, serving as an incentive for incarcerated people to participate in rehabilitation programs.
Since closing over a year ago, San Quentin’s main recreational yard has opened to residents from all housing units.
This comes after the prison administration issued a new Program Status Report (PSR), returning almost all prison programming back to normal, besides cell-feeding and in-person visitation.
The new PSR also allows all incarcerated people to report back to their institutional job assignments. Religious services will return to normal as well.
The prison administration cited the steady decrease in active cases and the increase in vaccine availability.
On Apr. 26, San Quentin’s Chief Medical Executive Alison Pachynski stated that 77 percent of the prison’s population had been fully vaccinated, making it the third or fourth best in the state.
Pachynski emphasized the importance of continuing to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines, such as mask-wearing, frequent hand-washing and regular testing.
“We’re gonna have to learn to live with COVID,” she said.
In the past two weeks, Correctional Training Facility (CTF) has tested the most individuals, 63 percent of its population. Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) has tested the least, 68 percent of its population.
There are currently 96,079 incarcerated persons in California’s prisons – a reduction of 26,330 since March 2020, when the prison outbreaks first began.
As of May 8, 3,248 patients in CDCR have received their first round of vaccines. 64,600 are fully vaccinated. 70 percent of the total prison population is either partially or fully vaccinated.
1,760 staff members have received their first round of vaccines statewide. 26,209 staff are fully vaccinated. 42.7 percent of the total staff population is either partially or fully vaccinated.
Currently, Correctional Training Facility (CTF) has vaccinated the most incarcerated individuals, 87 percent of its population. Wasco State Prison (WSP) has tested the least, just 40 percent.
Centinela State Prison (CEN) has tested the most staff members, 58 percent of its population. High Desert State Prison (HDSP), on the other hand, has tested the least of its staff population, only 20 percent.
Effect on Public
In 2016, California voters approved the justice reform legislation— Prop. 57. However, changes were made to the proposition because of an Office of Administrative Law regulatory process that is permitted under Prop. 57.
The changes to Prop. 57 gave 76,000 incarcerated individuals a mechanism to be released early from state prison. Those individuals include over 63,000 people incarcerated for violent crimes who will be eligible for Good Conduct Credits that shorten their sentences by one-third, instead of the previous one-fifth.
More than 10,000 incarcerated people convicted of a second serious, but nonviolent, offense under California’s ‘three strikes’ law will be eligible for early release after serving half their sentences.
Victim advocacy organization members argue that incarcerated individuals can easily accumulate Good Conduct Credits, even while exhibiting bad behavior at the same time. For example, Kent Scheidegger, the legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation said, “You don’t have to be good to get good-time credits. People who lose good-time credits for misconduct get them back, they don’t stay gone.”
Additionally, the top Republican candidate in the recall race for California governor, Kevin Faulconer, criticized the changes to Prop. 57. “The decision to release tens of thousands of violent criminals onto our streets is a blatant assault on public safety in California. This will put countless families at risk across our state.”
Fresno County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, Tony Botti, released a statement to address the concerns and misunderstandings about Prop. 57. Botti explained that CDCR’s explanation indicates that once this change is in effect, the potential release of 76,000 people will not happen all at once, but rather over a long period, and decisions about early release will be specific to the incarcerated individual’s circumstances.
Gov. Newsom’s administration explains the goals of the new policy, “The goal is to increase incentives for the incarcerated population to practice good behavior and follow the rules while serving their time, and participate in rehabilitative and educational programs, which will lead to safer prisons… Additionally, these changes would help to reduce the prison population by allowing incarcerated persons to earn their way home sooner.”
Sacramento’s current District Attorney and candidate for Attorney General, Anne Marie Schubert, called on the current Attorney General, Rob Bonta, to oppose the new changes to Prop. 57 that could result in the early release of 76,000 incarcerated people in California.
“This is wrong and dangerous for California. The Appointed Attorney General should oppose these rules that will result in thousands of dangerous inmates being released. The job of the Attorney General is to enforce the law to keep the public safe. To sit back and do nothing speaks volumes about his values towards public safety, crime victims and his ability to lead the office of the state’s top law enforcement officer,” Shubert said in a news release.
“Inmates convicted of felony domestic violence, hate crimes, human trafficking of a child, rape of a developmentally disabled person, and assault with a deadly weapon are now allowed to have their sentences reduced by 50% under these new rules. Inmates with long records of violent crimes are getting these reduced sentences under these new rules. As of December 2020, 4500 convicted sex offenders currently in prison will qualify for these reduced sentences,” Schubert added.
While proponents of the changes to Prop. 57 maintain that Good Conduct Credits will incentivize and reward good behavior, local law enforcement officials and politicians are concerned with the task to reduce prison populations, and how that would affect public safety if more violent offenders are released.
Butte County Sheriff, Kory Honea, said that the statement law enforcement received through the California State Sheriffs’ Association indicated that the changes to Prop. 57 is tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. “They tied this change to part of the COVID issue. There are only 13 active COVID cases among inmates in the CDCR systems. That’s a remarkably low number in justifying such a change,” he stated.
Honea suggests that the new Good Conduct Credit policy has the potential to be successfully implemented, but it is currently insufficient. “It’s not like you have to have a perfect track record in order to avail yourself to these enhanced credits. There’s the ability for them to be taken away and given back,” Honea said. “And that’s, I think, wherein lies the problem, because if the CDCR is under pressure to bring the population down, there may be an inclination on the part of staff to give credit or give back credit for exhibiting good behavior when perhaps under normal circumstances, if there was capacity at the facility, that wouldn’t have been something they would’ve done because the individual didn’t truly exhibit good behavior.”
Republican Senator Jim Nielsen of California’s Fourth District formerly served as the Chair of the Board of Prison Terms. Nielsen criticized Gov. Newsom’s administration for the changes to Prop. 57, “This is another ill-conceived policy of the Newsom Administration in its attempts to release convicted violent criminals back into our communities.”
Honea hopes that the changes will result in incarcerated individuals being released and becoming law-abiding, productive members of society. However, he warns that some individuals being released early may go on to commit further crimes, which may result in an additional burden to the criminal justice system, “That’s a lot of time, money, effort and potential impact on human life that may have been avoided if there wasn’t pressure to release people from the state prison system.”
There have been at least 16,441 cases of COVID-19 reported among prison staff. 26 staff members have died while 16,261 have returned to work. 171 cases are still active––a decrease of 12 from last week.
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 closely behind. Texas ranks third.
2 in 5 incarcerated individuals have tested positive –– 4.4 times the rate in California overall. 1 in 530 patients has died from COVID-19. 2 in 3 incarcerated individuals have been fully vaccinated while 3 in 4 have been partially vaccinated.
California makes up 12.4 percent of total cases among incarcerated people and 8.5 percent of the total deaths in prison.
California also makes up 14.7 percent of total cases and 12.8 percent of total deaths among prison staff.
Division of Juvenile Justice
As of May 7, there are no active cases of COVID-19 among youth at the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) facilities. 204 cases have been resolved since the first case was diagnosed in June.
A Year Ago Today
Last year, on May 8, 2020, there were a total of 569 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across CDCR.
At that time, California had 64,564 cases within the state. As of today, California has had a total of 3.66 million cases.
A year ago this week, CDCR/CCHCS confirmed that three incarcerated individuals from California Institution for Men (CIM) died on May 6 and May 7 at outside hospitals from what appeared to be complications related to COVID-19. A fifth individual died the next day, on May 8, at CIM.