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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

COVID continues to tear through San Quentin and another botched CDCR transfer results in an outbreak; cases continue to climb in jails and a prisoner at Sing Sing describes prison life amid a pandemic.

Weeks before the first reported cases of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, correctional healthcare experts warned that all the worst aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system — overcrowded, aging facilities lacking sanitary conditions and where medical care is, at best, sparse; too many older prisoners with underlying illnesses; regular flow of staff, guards, healthcare workers in and out of facilities — would leave detention facilities, and their surrounding communities, vulnerable to outbreaks. Despite those early warnings, even jails and prisons that believed they were well-prepared have seen a rapid spread of the virus. On a daily basis over the next several months, The Appeal will be examining the coronavirus crisis unfolding in U.S. prisons and jails, COVID-19’s impact on surrounding communities and how the virus might reshape our lives. Read Friday’s update.

San Quentin prison is a sprawling, 275-acre facility overlooking the San Francisco Bay. The facility is so old, and the property so valuable, that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger once proposed selling it to close a budget deficit. 

But it’s now home to the largest outbreak of COVID-19 among California’s 35 prisons—most of which haven’t seen a single case of COVID-19. 

As we’ve written in previous posts, San Quentin had no known cases of COVID-19 until June 1. On June 3, the Twitter account @RailroadUnderg1—which claims to be run by an “Incarcerated human being reporting from inside of a prison with a contraband cellphone”—raised concerns about the 121 prisoners who were transferred to San Quentin from the California Institution for Men in Chino, which had been overrun by COVID. 

It took several days for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) patient tracker to show any positive cases at San Quentin—testing results were reported after the fact. In other words, on June 4, when a CDCR spokesperson told The Appeal there were no cases of COVID-19 at San Quentin, there were actually 13. By June 22, there were 527 cases. Today, CDCR’s patient tracker is reporting 1,091 cases. 

Infections have swept through several cell blocks and even infiltrated death row. 

“If death row isolation, where people are housed in single-occupancy cells, is not sufficient protection from contagion, it is unclear where and how they can make space in an overcrowded general population to maintain social distancing. In any case, it’s way too late for masks and 6-feet-niceties,” writes UC Hastings College of the Law Professor Hadar Aviram on her blog, where she’s been exploring issues raised by COVID-19 in prisons and jails.

Adnan Khan, who spent four years in San Quentin and is currently the executive director of the advocacy organization Re:Store Justice, said he’s not surprised that people on death row have become infected. There are no correctional officer cohorts—meaning no officers are assigned to just one section of the prison—so it’s likely that officers who were in contact with infected prisoners in one part of the facility brought the virus into death row.  

“There’s no way an incarcerated person passed it to a death row person,” he said. 

When Khan was at San Quentin, he was housed in North Block, which holds roughly 800 people in two-person cells. Cells are 4-feet-by-9-feet with five tiers of 40 cells on each side of the building. Prisoners share 12 phones and two-dozen shower heads. There are no solid doors, only bars, and the walkway is three feet wide. ”Six-foot social distance doesn’t apply at all,” Khan said. “Once one case is in there, it’s going to set ablaze.”

Khan said he heard yesterday that two people from H Unit, five buildings of dorm-style housing, were taken to the hospital by ambulance. Marin County is reporting that roughly 40 people from San Quentin have been hospitalized.

Khan and others continue to ask Gov. Gavin Newsom to release people from California prisons. There was a protest in front of the prison on Sunday.

“We don’t know what September is going to look like,” Khan said. “If people don’t want to reduce the prison population, you can expect your county hospitals to be overcrowded.”

He points to himself as an example of someone whose crime would have made him ineligible for early release and thus vulnerable to COVID-19 behind bars. At age 18, Khan was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to 25 years to life for his role in a robbery where a friend stabbed a marijuana dealer to death. He was resentenced under Senate Bill 1437—by the same judge who’d sentenced him at 18—and released last year. If it wasn’t for the bill, Khan says, he’d still be in prison, labeled a violent offender. 

“What people don’t understand is who we’re talking about,” for early release, he says. “Facts say people age out of crime.”

The lead story this afternoon on the website of the Lassen County Times was a copy-and-paste of an email the newspaper sent to CDCR. Last week, four prisoners from San Quentin were transferred to the California Correctional Center (CCC) prison in Lassen County. The prison is  now reporting 214 cases of COVID-19. Prior to the transfer, there were 12 cases total in the tiny Northern California county (pop. 35,000), located just outside of Reno. “CCC has no medical facilities to speak of, and we are a rural county with a small hospital,” the newspaper wrote in an email. “How did this happen and why? What is CDCR thinking? 

They received a response yesterday from Terry Hardy, a CDCR public information officer: “We are closely monitoring and quickly responding to positive cases of COVID-19 in state prisons, including at CCC. Additionally, we are working closely with the court-appointed Federal Receiver on inmate transfers, as well as public health agencies and stakeholders for the safety and security of our inmates, staff and communities.”

*A botched transfer in New Mexico prompted widespread testing at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center in Farmington, turning up 99 positive cases. Prior to testing everyone in its custody, the jail had been conducting weekly testing of just 5 percent of its population.

*On June 19, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department put everyone in its North Annex Jail on quarantine after 13 of 25 men transferred to California’s Wasco State Prison tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival. On June 25, the department administered 1,200 tests. As of yesterday, the department reports, 500 tests have come back positive; the results of another 186 tests are pending. 

*On June 22, The Florida Times Union reported that 20 people housed at the Duval County jail had tested positive for COVID-19. The outbreak was traced back to a doctor working on contract for the jail. Since then, another 51 prisoners have tested positive, bringing total positive cases up to 71, “and showing how quickly the virus is capable of spreading in a confined facility that, until now, had escaped any confirmed cases,” reporter Andrew Pantazi writes.

*The June 26 edition of All Things Considered shared an essay by Mohammed Monsuri, who’s serving a 25-year sentence at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, N.Y. It captures the fear and uncertainty faced by people locked up in prisons and jails during the pandemic, with little contact to the outside world. Monsuri describes cancelled programs, visits and religious services, prisoners hoarding buckets of water and toilet paper in preparation for inevitable lockdown, and friends taken to the hospital only to never return. “Everybody had questions,” he writes. “Nobody had answers.”