By Julietta Bisharyan, Yasmeen Khan and Nick Gardner
This segment previews reporting by Solitary Watch authors Juan Moreno Haines and Katie Rose Quandt. For the full account, please visit: https://solitarywatch.org/2021/06/30/how-not-to-fight-a-prison-pandemic/
Last December, as COVID-19 cases surged far past first-wave levels, a selection of high-risk residents of San Quentin were informed that they would be transferred out of the institution that had thus far accumulated 28 deaths. Some of these men, including 71 year-old Ernie Stevens, were given the option to sign a waiver reserving their spot at the prison. Seven months later, Stevens, who was approved for transfer despite signing the waiver, is yet to receive a status update— a grave inconvenience especially for longer-tenured individuals acclimated to life within a specific institution.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, the CDCR’s take on population reduction has been remarkably unaffirmative, introducing measures to reduce the aggregate incarcerated population by from 130 to 104 percent over design capacity while simultaneously fighting court orders mandating more substantive action, such as an October ruling that ordered San Quentin’s population to be reduced by half.
According to the authors, even the order, which proposed transfers as a means of meeting the population requirement, is antithetical to the safety of incarcerated populations.
“While the judges’ suggestion to transfer was well-intentioned, shuffling people from prison to prison during a pandemic is dangerous. In fact, the San Quentin outbreak can be traced back to transfers in the first place, according to a February report by the state Office of the Inspector General,” Haines and Quandt wrote.
The consensus from medical experts as to the most effective method of reducing the risk of coronavirus is a combination of decarceration and vaccination, and according to a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, vaccination alone is incapable of preventing the virus due to the difficulty of herd immunity in communal living spaces. Moreover, vaccine skepticism has been prevalent among both CDCR staff and incarcerated individuals— over the past months, overall staff vaccination has remained at around 50 percent, with incarcerated vaccination notably higher at roughly 70 percent.
As noted by Hadar Aviram, staff members tend to represent a demographic rich in COVID-skepticism. In a recent article from the COVID In-Custody Project, Folsom State Prison resident Chancellor Wade cited an established distrust in CDCR medical attention as a source of hesitancy among himself and his peers. The aforementioned study similarly identified this sentiment, “given U.S. carceral facilities’ long-standing violations of basic human rights and histories of abuse.”
For individuals in a similar predicament to Stevens, ambiguity surrounding transfer status has been a source of immense anxiety. “The stress they are causing us is really bad for my compromised immune system caused by HIV,” said Glenn Harder, a 59-year old who is currently serving the 24th year of a 34-year to life sentence.
Wilber Rodgers Jr., 62, in the 20th year of a 122-year to life sentence, strongly opposed the idea of transferring institutions. When presented with the same waiver as Steven, Rodgers refused to sign.
CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes
As of Jul. 17, there have been a total of 49,424 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 20 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 19 cases are active in custody, while 605 have been released while active.
A total of 48,571 confirmed cases have been resolved since the start of the pandemic, and 229 individuals have died.
A death at the California Institution for Men (CIM) that occurred on Mar. 6, 2021, and another at California Health Care Facility (CHCF) that occurred on Jan. 16, 2021 have since been determined to be COVID-related.
No further information is provided to protect the privacy of the two individuals.
In the past two weeks, California Health Care Facility (CHCF) has tested the most, 90 percent of its population. Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) has tested the least, 48 percent of its population.
A total of 131,892 patients have been tested cumulatively. 29,128 patients have been tested in the last two weeks across CDCR.
There are currently 98,723 incarcerated persons in California’s prisons – a reduction of 23,686 since March 2020, when the prison outbreaks first began.
Effect on Public
A recent state budget report reveals that California’s efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic has amounted to $8 billion in total— $3 billion in mask contracts and other supply procurements, $1.9 billion in testing contracts, $1.7 billion in relief for the homeless and other vulnerable populations, and $1.6 billion for California’s prison system.
A report conducted by the Department of Finance officials for the May revision to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2021-22 budget, estimates the cost for diagnostic testing for incarcerated individuals and CDCR employees will be more than $630 million over three years.
California has already spent $1.04 billion on COVID-19 efforts in prisons from July 2020 to June 2021. Overall, the state has spent more money responding to COVID-19 in prisons than it has on vaccine administrations for the general public. The vaccination campaign alone will cost $1.3 billion by the end of the fiscal year in June 2022.
In an attempt to reduce costs, CDCR continues to run the video court program in Kern County Superior Court in Delano, which allows defendants to appear at certain court proceedings via videoconference.
Virtual courts will allow the backlogged criminal court system to accelerate court proceedings in a safe and cost efficient manner.
CDCR reports, “This innovative program has saved Californians millions of dollars, and has meant fewer transports and increased security for CDCR staff. Previously, staff transported defendants to Kern County for court appearances even if they had transferred since committing the offense.”
According to the CDCR, they are saving taxpayers more than $1 million a year with just one single video appearance camera.
More than 2,000 hearings have been held since the program began, saving more than 20,000 miles of travel and nearly 1,000 staff-hours.
CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison discloses, “We were able to quickly and efficiently pivot to videoconferencing during the pandemic in accordance with public health guidelines, protecting not only staff and incarcerated people, but also our communities.”
As of Jul. 17, 2,068 patients have received their first round of vaccines statewide. 71,661 are fully vaccinated. 74 percent of the total prison population is either partially or fully vaccinated.
1,600 staff members have received their first round of vaccines statewide. 34,224 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, 89 percent of its population. Wasco State Prison (WSP) has vaccinated the least, just 51 percent.
Centinela State Prison (CEN) has tested the most staff members, 65 percent of its population. High Desert State Prison (HDSP), on the other hand, has vaccinated the least of its staff population, only 26 percent.
According to CDCR, no facilities are currently in Phase 1 in CDCR’s road to reopening plan. Phase one indicates that the prison has facilities that currently have an outbreak or are recovering from a recent outbreak.
Twenty-five facilities are in Phase 2, meaning there is partial reopening and modified gradual easing of Phase 1 restrictions.
212 facilities are in Phase 3, which indicates new normal programming. Reopening of programs and services will be reviewed and implemented weekly by the institution, according to the plan. If a facility experiences an outbreak, it must revert to Phase 1 restrictions.
Sierra Conservation Center (SCC) has the most facilities, all 20, under Phase 3. Mule Creek State Prison (MCSP) has the most facilities in Phase 2, seven facilities total.
Gov. Newsom terminated executive orders that put into the place the Stay-at-Home Order and the Blueprint for a Safer Economy effective Jun. 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.
Division of Juvenile Justice
As of Jul. 13, 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 2020.
A Year Ago Today
A year ago today, CDCR confirmed the 39th death from COVID-related complications statewide.
Last year, the Board of State and Community Corrections approved $15 million from their Federal emergency COVID-19 funds to be allocated to CDCR, so the department can better meet the housing needs of those being released from prison who are at-risk of homelessness, and to protect public health and safety.
On Jul. 17, 2020, there were a total of 7,161 confirmed cases of COVID-19. In California, at the time, there were 381,075.