San Quentin is the latest California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) facility to deal with a large coronavirus outbreak since the start of the pandemic this spring. But the crisis in the historic state prison stands apart because of the rapid spread of infections.
San Quentin is California’s oldest correctional facility, and has the state’s only death row for males. Organizers and attorneys say the outbreak in the facility can be traced back to the transfer of almost 200 people the CDCR considered highly vulnerable to Covid-19 from the California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino to San Quentin and Corcoran state prisons. At the time, CIM had over 450 Covid-19 cases while San Quentin had zero reported infections and Corcoran had one.
Within three weeks of the transfer, San Quentin had 499 infected individuals and Corcoran had 148.
Meanwhile, advocates worry that prison transfers from San Quentin to other facilities have sparked new infections. In Lassen county, almost 300 miles from the San Francisco Bay Area, positive cases at the California Correctional Center have shot from zero to 210 within a week following a June transfer from San Quentin.
Since the start of the pandemic, organizers, attorneys and public health experts have called on authorities to release prisoners who are vulnerable to succumbing to the impacts of Covid-19 and to stop transferring people from one prison to another to curb the spread of the virus.
They are also urging the CDCR to improve testing at the facilities and to limit the movements between different sections of the facilities.
Nationally, coronavirus spread in the prisons and jails have been described as preventable disasters by advocates, attorneys and public health officials. Many argue that aging infrastructure and cramped quarters make prisons and jails a place where social distancing is impossible. In California, where prison overcrowding is the topic of the more than decade-long Plata lawsuit, organizers say that the only surefire way to avoid widespread infection and death among staff and inmates is to approve mass releases.
Since early-March, as California’s first coronavirus-induced stay-at-home orders were enacted, California has released almost 8,000 people from their institutions.
On 16 June CDCR announced their Community Supervision Program that will allow people to spend the last 180 days or less of their prison sentence in home confinement under post-release supervision. The program is set to launch on 1 July and excludes people serving time for violent and serious offenses, domestic violence, and those who would have to register as sex offenders upon release.