By Julietta Bisharyan, Nick Gardner and Alexis Hogan
Davis Vanguard’s weekly highlights from CDCR’s COVID-19 crisis
Juan Haines is a senior editor at San Quentin News, one of the few newspapers run by incarcerated people.
Haines, along with other reporters, became members of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in 2015, which led to the inception of the first SPJ chapter inside a prison. Currently, there are more than 40 journalists at San Quentin who produce print, radio and video journalism for San Quentin News.
In June 2020, San Quentin experienced a devastating COVID-19 outbreak that infected over half the population and claimed the lives of 28 people. The outbreak followed a botched transfer of 121 men from the California Institution for Men— a facility that had hundreds of confirmed cases at that time. In Feb. 2021, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for California, released a scathing report which concluded that the transfer “was deeply flawed and risked the health and lives of thousands of incarcerated persons and staff.”
Haines, who tested positive in June 2020, was moved to the prison’s solitary confinement ward for quarantine, since the infirmary being overcrowded. He was quarantined in a small cell with no electricity and medical attention. He was only allowed out to shower once every three days.
Haines coped by writing about this experience and documenting the disturbing conditions. He sent his letter to The Appeal.
During a telephone interview for this story, Haines said “People were dying left and right… I’m housed in North Block. We’re pretty much double-celled in there, so it was already overcrowded. It was particularly deadly because the buildings are unventilated, and the windows are welded shut.”
Many San Quentin residents have filed lawsuits, petitioning to be released or relocated. In one case, the California Court of Appeals ruled that the CDCR administration had acted with “deliberate indifference” in regard to their handling of the outbreak and ordered the CDCR to reduce San Quentin’s population to 50 percent capacity. However, the California Supreme Court sent the case back to the Court of Appeals, putting the order to reduce capacity on hold.
CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes
As of May 1, there have been a total of 49,221 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 11 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 12 cases are active in custody while 613 have been released while active. A total of 48,374 confirmed cases have been resolved since the start of the pandemic and 222 individuals have died.
On Apr. 28, CDCR and CA Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) issued an updated Patient Movement Matrix which dictates testing and quarantine timeframes required for all population movement. The guidelines recommend that movement is limited to what is necessary for clinical care, medical isolation or quarantine, reduction of overcrowding and serious custody concerns.
Starting May 1, CDCR will standardize the amount of Good Conduct Credit (GCC) by increasing the credit rate for eligible incarcerated people based on their conviction pursuant to emergency regulations.
GCC incentivizes incarcerated people to comply with departmental regulations and prison rules, and to perform the duties assigned on a regular and satisfactory basis.
CDCR will increase the rate of GCC earned for individuals serving time for violent felonies from 20 percent to 33 percent, and from 33.3 percent to 50 percent for nonviolent second and third strikers.
As CDCR slowly enters its new normal programming phase, progressive reopening of programs and services will continue to be reviewed and implemented weekly by each institution. Programs and services include normal visiting operations, rehabilitative programs, contact sports and congregate religious activities.
The Roadmap to Reopening, as presented by CDCR-CCHCS, puts forth guidelines for reopening institutional programs, services and activities within CDCR and CCHCS.
The plan allows hiring authorities and their teams to determine specifics that meet current operational and safety needs within the phased guidelines as best apply to their institution’s unique circumstances. These include reduced group sizes, modified hours, staggered schedules, outdoor programming or programming in non-traditional spaces to allow for physical distancing.
According to CDCR, institutions will continuously evaluate and monitor positive COVID-19 test results and reinstate precautionary measures as needed.
In the past two weeks, Correctional Training Facility (CTF) has tested the most individuals, about 2,524 patients. Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) has tested the least, just 400 patients.
There are currently 95,817 incarcerated persons in California’s prisons – a reduction of 26,592 since March 2020, when the prison outbreaks first began.
Updates from Plata v. Newsom
CCHCS is continuing to re-offer doses of the vaccine to those who previously refusing.
A recent CDC study concluded that a single unvaccinated staff member is capable of sparking an outbreak in vaccinated communal living spaces, and that those cases could lead to severe symptoms or death.
Staff infections have been an issue in the past— RJ Donovan Correctional Facility’s COVID-free incarcerated population was placed on lockdown in October after three staff members tested positive, and CSP Los Angeles County’s 650-case outbreak was similarly prompted by four infected correctional officers.
To incentivize staff vaccination, CDCR announced a program that allows employees to take time-off to receive the vaccine, as well as paid leave should they experience any symptoms. The program applies retroactively to Jan. 1 and permits 80 hours of leave with standard compensation.
(b). Population Reduction
CDCR’s incarcerated population as of April 21 stood at 95,600 people, down from approximately 123,000 in March 2020. As cases continue to abate— active cases have fallen to below ten from over 10,000 in January— intake and transfers have resumed, increasing the aggregate population by roughly 1,000 since early February. An additional 10,000 individuals in county jails are awaiting transport to a CDCR facility.
(c). Resumption of Services
The pandemic greatly altered in-house medical operations. Over the past year, prison doctors saw patients at a greatly reduced frequency, with many appointments deferred or reduced to a simple review of a patient’s medical records. CCHCS stated plans to re-open clinics but face facility issues, as former spaces have proven to be inconsistent with social distancing guidelines. Once restrictions are lifted, clinics will resume in a capacity to be determined by local prison officials.
In-person visitation resumed on April 10 accompanied by an array of safety protocol: Visitors must provide a negative test no longer than 72 hours prior to their appointment, incarcerated individuals are required to test within 48 hours of the visit, screening and temperature checks are to be conducted on-site, one adult visitor is permitted per incarcerated person for one hour, and interactions are to be limited to a brief hug at the beginning and end of the visit.
(d). OIG Reports Regarding Face Covering and Physical Distancing Monitoring
OIG conducted 19 unannounced visits between March 7, 2021 and April 6, 2021. While there was compliance, notable instances of deviance were also reported. Noncompliance was deemed “significant” at 11 of the 19 institutions surveyed; Folsom State Prison and Pleasant Valley State Prison each saw 50 or more incarcerated persons incorrectly donning face coverings, with Correctional Training Facility, North Kern State Prison, and Sierra Conservation Center reporting 20 similar incidents. Several other institutions failed to report exact statistics on noncompliance.
As of May. 1, 4,807 patients have received their first round of vaccines statewide. 62,417 are fully vaccinated. 70 percent of the total prison population is either partially or fully vaccinated.
1,805 staff members have received their first round of vaccines statewide. 26,039 staff are fully vaccinated. 42.6 percent of the total staff population is either partially or fully vaccinated.
There have been at least 16,384 cases of COVID-19 reported among prison staff. 26 staff members have died while 16,201 have returned to work. 183 cases are still active––a decrease of 3 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 8.6 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 Apr. 26, there are no active cases of COVID-19 among youth at the Division of Juvenile Justice facilities. 204 cases have been resolved since the first case was diagnosed in June.
A Year Ago Today
Last year, on May 1, 2020, there were a total of 388 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across CDCR.
At that time, California had 52,536 cases within the state. As of today, California has had a total of 3.66 million cases.
A year ago this week, CDCR announced that 1,928 incarcerated individuals had been transferred to alternate institutions to create physical distancing; 331 were transferred within their local institutions.