Fully Vaccinated CDCR Staff Members Now Exempt From Surveillance Testing


By Julietta Bisharyan, Nick Gardner and Alexis Hogan

Weekly highlights from CDCR’s COVID-19 crisis

Incarcerated Narrative

Dangerous conditions that caused San Quentin’s COVID-19 outbreak to spin out of control, were not unique as 26 out of the 35 California prisons are overcrowded.

As of May 30, 2020, no incarcerated people at San Quentin had tested positive for COVID-19, however, after a transfer of 121 people were transferred from California Institution for Men without surveillance testing or symptoms checks, a massive outbreak emerged. The next day, May 31, the CDCR reported the first confirmed case among the incarcerated population.

On July 20 2020, there had been about 2,089 confirmed cases among incarcerated people at San Quentin, and about 1,100 people had recovered. During this time, about 13 incarcerated people at San Quentin had died as a result of the virus— 6 of them were serving a death sentence. Last year, Gov. Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions— California has not executed an individual on death row since 2006.

As of July 2020, 11 death row prisoners had died— 2 died in February due to natural causes, and the cause of death for the other 9 is still pending, according to the CDCR website.

Incarcerated individuals who test positive for COVID-19, or have been exposed to someone who tested positive, are isolated in “administrative segregation housing units”, which are considered to be indistinguishable from solitary confinement. CDCR’s website assures that this procedure is not to be perceived as punitive, but rather to prevent further spread of the virus.

As early as March 2020, public health experts warned of a severe crisis in the California prison system due to overcrowding. “California prisons are designed for a maximum capacity of 85,000 people but have been over capacity for decades. With over 122,000 people currently held in CDCR custody, the state’s custodial facilities are not equipped to prevent the spread of a highly contagious respiratory infection like COVID-19; rather, they appear almost perfectly designed to facilitate its unchecked spread,” the letter stated.

Incarcerated people at San Quentin had to deal with the threat of infection from a deadly virus while in an increasingly distressing environment. For example, they were only allowed to shower once every 3 days. In July 2020, the CDCR suspended phone calls in shared spaces. CDCR also tried to increase social distancing in the facilities— as San Quentin’s outbreak grew to one of the largest in the country, tents were placed in the outside baseball field to house sick patients.

In the spring of 2020, the gym at San Quentin was turned into more housing units. A report warned that “there is little to no ventilation” inside the gym, and that the conditions were leading to a “high-risk for a catastrophic super spreader event.”  

Some individuals housed in the gym noted that they did not feel like they could keep an adequate distance from others. One incarcerated individual mentioned that they were promised partitions between the beds, but that did not ever happen.

CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes

As of Jun. 26, there have been a total of 49,402 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 31 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 35 cases are active in custody, while 606 have been released while active. 

A total of 48,534 confirmed cases have been resolved since the start of the pandemic, and 227 individuals have died.

In the past two weeks, California Health Care Facility (CHCF) has tested the most individuals, 90 percent of its population. Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) has tested the least, 55 percent of its population.

There are currently 98,190 incarcerated persons in California’s prisons – a reduction of 24,219 since March 2020, when the prison outbreaks first began.


As of Jun. 26, 1,864 patients have received their first round of vaccines statewide. 69,831 are fully vaccinated. 72 percent of the total prison population is either partially or fully vaccinated.

1,713 staff members have received their first round of vaccines statewide. 33,727 staff are fully vaccinated. 54 percent of the total staff population is either partially or fully vaccinated.

Currently, Correctional Training Facility (CTF) has vaccinated the most incarcerated individuals, 88 percent of its population. Wasco State Prison (WSP) has vaccinated the least, just 50 percent.

Centinela State Prison (CEN) has tested the most staff members, 64 percent of its population. High Desert State Prison (HDSP), on the other hand, has vaccinated the least of its staff population, only 25 percent.

During May and June, incarcerated individuals and staff members who are fully vaccinated are exempt from routine surveillance testing.

“Although we continue to identify cases and clusters of COVID infection among unvaccinated employees, it appears that vaccinated staff have not contributed to these outbreaks,” read a memo from CDCR.

These exemptions for vaccinated people will extend for the month of July. According to CDCR, CCHCS will continue to monitor the health of staff and residents to determine if routine testing can be stopped altogether for fully vaccinated persons. 

CDCR Staff

Governor Gavin Newsom terminated executive orders that put into the place the Stay-at-Home Order and the Blueprint for a Safer Economy effective June 15, 2021, meaning State departments are no longer required to collect and report absentee data. 

As a result, CDCR will no longer be collecting COVID-19 data for their employees.

The final cumulative employee COVID-19 data shows that there have been a total of 17,002 cases and 28 deaths among staff members statewide. 

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, with Federal prisons following closely behind. Texas ranks third. 

California ranks third for the highest number of deaths nationwide. Texas ranks first, and Federal prisons are second.

2 in 5 incarcerated individuals have tested positive–– 4.4 times the rate in California overall. 1 in 518 patients has died from COVID-19. 3 in 4 incarcerated individuals have been fully or partially vaccinated.

California makes up 12.3 percent of total cases among incarcerated people and 8.3 percent of the total deaths in prison in the U.S.

California also makes up 14.8 percent of total cases and 13.3 percent of total deaths among prison staff.

Division of Juvenile Justice

As of Jun. 26, there are no active cases of COVID-19 among youth at the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) facilities. 205 cases have been resolved since the first case was diagnosed in June.

A Year Ago Today

On June 22nd, 2020, the CDCR’s Mandatory 14-day Modification Program took effect with the goal of introducing standardized methods to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 by staff and incarcerated individuals. Features of the program included a ban on in person visits, limitation of health care services to essential visits, and staff PPE requirements, among other protocols.

On June 20, 2020, Avenal State Prison (ASP) reported its first death— the 19th statewide. Over the course of that week ASP would record two more deaths. 





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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