Covid in the Prison

— The COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin State Prison (San Quentin) is the worst prison health screw-up in state history. The botched transfer of COVID-19 positive inmates from the California Institution for Men in Chino to San Quentin has led to nearly 1,400 inmates and over 180 employees at the prison testing positive for the coronavirus. To date, at least six San Quentin inmates have died from COVID-19 while in state custody. All of this would have been preventable if the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and San Quentin leadership had listened to public health and infectious disease experts, developed prison specific plans, and taken appropriate actions to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19. It isn’t like they weren’t warned. In April, after hearing the concerns of Marin County’s Public Health Officer, Dr. Matt Willis, I spoke with CDCR and San Quentin officials about a potential COVID-19 outbreak and called on them to develop site-specific plans for each of its facilities to ensure that incarcerated people and staff can be protected and local hospitals would not be overwhelmed by a surge of infections. In early May, I asked again for CDCR and San Quentin to develop site-specific plans to address a COVID-19 infection surge at the prison and ensure that limited hospital capacity in the North Bay would be able to safely accommodate civilian and prisoner patients. You can read more about my request and view my letter to CDCR Secretary Diaz here. On May 26, for the first time in over 25 years, the State Assembly met as a Committee of the Whole to discuss the state budget and to have representatives of Governor Newsom’s administration answer questions about a range of budget issues. Among my questions, I again asked the administration for site-specific plans to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak at state prisons. You can view my statement here. Click the image above to see Assemblymember Levine’s statement before the State Assembly’s Committee of the Whole. On May 30, a series of poorly managed actions directed by federal receiver J. Clark Kelso and carried out by CDCR staff led to the transfer of 121 inmates from the California Institution for Men in Chino to San Quentin. The prisoners were not tested for COVID-19 immediately prior to the transfer. The inmate bus transfer itself exposed inmates to the virus and upon arrival at San Quentin, transferred inmates were thoughtlessly blended with the existing inmate population, endangering thousands of inmates and staff at the prison. Transferred inmates were housed at upper levels of the Badger Unit prison block which has open air, barred doors, making it easier for any inmate vapor to fall upon other inmates below. Chino inmates were also transferred to other CDCR facilities across the state, creating a spike of COVID-19 infections throughout the prison system. On June 11, following reports that sixteen inmates at San Quentin tested positive for COVID-19, I renewed my call for CDCR and San Quentin to develop site-specific plans to address a COVID-19 infection surge at the prison and ensure that limited hospital capacity in the North Bay could safely accommodate civilian and prisoner patients. You can read more about this here. By June 18, inmate infections grew to 47 and CDCR still did not have a plan. On June 25, Assembly Budget Chair Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), Assembly Budget Sub-Chair on Public Safety Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) and I met with federal prison receiver J. Clark Kelso to discuss the crisis at San Quentin. At the beginning of the meeting, Receiver Kelso acknowledged that his decision to transfer inmates from Chino to San Quentin was done “too quickly”, was a “self-inflicted wound” and a “big mistake”. It was a stunning admission, but it was an admission that lacked the appropriate urgency or follow up necessary to limit further spread of the virus. His decision put thousands of inmates, staff and the community at risk. I had no choice but to call for the U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar to remove Receiver Kelso from his position and replace him with a competent receiver who can provide better safeguards for all the incarcerated and staff. You can read more about my call to remove Kelso here. Kelso has since replaced a member of his staff. While Judge Tigar has yet to replace Kelso with a new federal receiver, Kelso did remove Dr. R. Steven Tharratt as the prison system’s statewide medical director this week. You can read more about Dr. Tharratt’s removal here. As of June 26, 545 inmates and 73 staff had tested positive for the coronavirus. Statewide, over 4,200 inmates had tested positive for the coronavirus. On July 1, I participated in a Senate Public Safety Committee hearing on the botched transfer of inmates and the expanding COVID-19 crisis at San Quentin. Lawmakers from across the state assailed the decisions of CDCR leadership and Receiver Kelso who offered too little action too late to protect inmates, staff and the public. You can see my opening statement at this hearing here. Click the image above to see Assemblymember Levine’s statement before the Senate Public Safety Committee. Our efforts are working. We have begun to see action. Governor Newsom, CDCR staff, Department of Public Health staff and the Director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) have established an incident command center at San Quentin to limit, treat and curtail further infections from COVID-19. CalOES also began the establishment of a 160 bed alternative care site for non-Intensive Care Unit patients at the prison and a regional hospitalization plan to accommodate additional inmate hospitalization needs, including possible ICU hospitalization that will not overburden local hospitals. Over the 4th of July weekend, infections at San Quentin continued to rise, including the death of three condemned inmates from coronavirus related causes. As of this week, nearly 1,400 inmates and over 180 staff at San Quentin have tested positive for COVID-19. Enough. While deployment of an incident command at San Quentin is underway, COVID-19 infections continue to spike across California. I had hoped that my warnings since April would have motivated CDCR leadership to take more decisive and preventative action. Unfortunately, those warnings were not heeded in time. My hope is that the delayed actions will force CalOES and CDCR leadership to listen to local public health officials and infectious disease experts to appropriately care for and prevent further COVID-19 infections at San Quentin and in the community. One of the most important roles of the Legislature is providing public oversight of state government agencies. As long as this pandemic continues to threaten the lives of residents in the North Bay and across California, I will continue to hold public agencies accountable and ensure that we take all steps necessary to protect public health. What else do you think needs to be done to protect San Quentin prisoners, staff and the surrounding community from the spread of COVID-19? I welcome your feedback and suggestions. Please connect with me on social media @AsmMarcLevine or send me an email at Assemblymember.levine@assembly.ca.gov. Sincerely,

Marc Levine
http://www.marclevine.org/ Paid for by Friends of Marc Levine for Assembly 2020, FPPC #1413873
PO Box 150084, San Rafael, CA 94915-0084, United States