#childsafety | After a Year of COVID-19 Outbreaks, California Prisons Reckon With Mistakes

But a court case that has been brewing for months is keeping the issue in the spotlight. The possibility remains alive that prison officials may still have to take a drastic step: to halve the number of people at San Quentin, which was one of the hardest hit prisons in the state.

A ‘Public Health Disaster’

Last summer, a busload of infected prisoners from a Chino prison were transferred to San Quentin. The men hadn’t been tested for the virus in a timely fashion, nor were they quarantined for observation when they first arrived. Within days, COVID-19 began tearing through San Quentin like wildfire.

“Most of my friends caught COVID, and I know a few people that also passed,” said Adamu Chan, who was incarcerated at San Quentin at the time.

Adamu Chan was incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak there last summer. He’s been working as a community organizer since his release last fall. (Jim McKee/KQED)

San Quentin is the state’s oldest prison, and its architecture makes it particularly vulnerable to the spread of any kind of infectious disease. Most cell doors aren’t solid, but rather consist of bars that allow air to flow freely. In the main housing block, tier after tier of cells are stacked upon each other with a wide-open atrium stretching from the ground floor to the ceiling several stories above.

The cells themselves are tiny.

“Folks are in 4-by-9 cells, double bunks, so there’s two people in a very small cell,” Chan said. “In a cell block, there’s about 800 people sharing the same air.”

To date, more than 70% of San Quentin’s inmates have been infected and 28 have died — the highest death toll at any of the state’s prisons. More than 400 correctional staff at San Quentin have also been infected and one has died.

But more than architecture contributed to the virus’ spread, said Marin County Deputy Public Defender Christine O’Hanlon, who represents 249 men at San Quentin who sued to be released.

“We found several what we call ‘couplets,’ or cell mates, where one of them was positive and the other one tested negative, and they did not separate them. They locked them in the cells together,” O’Hanlon said. “I think the brazen disregard to the concerns of COVID was the thing that shocked me the most.”

O’Hanlon said the conditions of confinement at the prison amount to cruel and unusual punishment — a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Marin County Public Defender Christine O'Hanlon
Marin County Public Defender Christine O’Hanlon points to boxes and boxes of medical records related to the cases of her clients, 249 men incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison who are suing to be released. (Jim McKee/KQED)

Last October, a panel of appellate court judges weighed in, calling what was happening at San Quentin “the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history.” They ordered prison officials to reduce San Quentin’s population by a whopping 50% to allow for proper social distancing and quarantining.

The governor and CDCR immediately appealed that order, saying that deciding which prisoners to release is a complex and time-consuming process and that releases could pose a danger to the community.

In February, the Office of the Inspector General for prisons (OIG) released a report further detailing how the inaction of prison officials caused a “public health disaster” at San Quentin.

The inspector general wrote that testing for the virus was inadequate, that sick or potentially infected people were not immediately quarantined and thorough contact tracing was not conducted.

“The prison’s inability to properly quarantine and isolate incarcerated persons exposed to or infected with COVID-19, along with its practice of allowing staff to work throughout the prison during shifts or on different days, likely caused the virus to spread to multiple areas of the prison,” the report said.

CDCR declined to give an interview but responded to the OIG’s report with a statement that said, “San Quentin State Prison has made many improvements and already remedied several of the citations …. to keep all those who live and work in our state prisons safe.”

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