California prison officials blasted over San Quentin COVID-19 outbreak

Lawmakers on Wednesday expressed frustration to California prison officials over COVID-19 outbreaks at 19 facilities, claiming they were foreseeable and avoidable.

The Senate Public Safety Committee held a four-hour oversight hearing in Sacramento to demand answers and address systematic failures including the massive outbreak at San Quentin where more than 1,100 inmates and 112 staff members have been infected. More that 800 have been in the last two weeks.

“I do not want this to be just talk,” committee chair Sen. Nancy Skinner said. “I want to see action as a result. The entire state deserves that.”

That call comes after more than 120 inmates were transferred in late May from the California Institution for Men, where there was already an outbreak, to San Quentin State Prison in Marin County. While prison officials said they were all tested before being transferred, at least 25 later tested positive for the coronavirus.

“In many cases the tests were two, three and in some cases four weeks old,” Clark Kelso who oversees the California Correctional Health Care Services said. “Far too old to be an indicator for the absence of COVID.”

Lawmakers questioned how that would happen, especially knowing there are health officials at each of California’s 35 prison facilities. Additionally, other transfers have allowed the virus to spread to several other facilities.

“There are no proactive measures,” Sen. Mark McGuire said. “We are leading behind the ball.”

It was also found by state officials that deficiencies at San Quentin contributed to the spread including a lack of ventilation, slow testing turnaround, inmates refusing testing and the layout of the prison, including a lack of beds.

The biggest concerns now are insufficient resources to handle the crisis and the capacity of local hospitals to deal with an increasing number of patients.

“I don’t say this lightly but this is a failure of leadership,” McGuire said.

Emergency moves including triage tents and more nurses have since been deployed. And other Bay Area hospitals are working to help deal with an influx of patients.

“I need to express we can do better and I know we will do better,” Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Ralph Diaz said. “The thought that we don’t care or I don’t care personally – that’s the furthest from the truth.”

Beginning Wednesday, some inmates are eligible for early release if they have 180 days or less left on their sentences. Violent offenders don’t qualify. In total, 3,500 inmates could be released statewide.

But some lawmakers, public defenders and former inmates pushed back calling for expanded early releases and protection to the thousands of prisoners who are medically vulnerable. Nearly half of the prison population in California is either over age 55, has pre-existing medical issues, or is near the end of their sentences.

“We are asking you to see them. See them not just as inmates or prisoners but see them as people,” Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods said. “Treat them the same way you want to be treated or I want to be treated.”

Woods said a petition has been signed by 10,000 people urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to release even more prisoners to stop the COVID-19 infections. It's unclear if the governor is considering additional releases. 

In total, nearly 2,600 inmates statewide are currently infected and 22 have died.

“We will feel the appropriate respect once we see the action,” Skinner said.