(CN) — Recalling a haunting scene of men pleading for their lives behind locked cell doors, an infectious disease expert warned California lawmakers Wednesday that San Quentin State Prison must immediately release at least half of its 3,500 inmates to thwart a deadly Covid-19 outbreak.
“Frankly, it’s hard to understand how residents and staff can safely continue working and living at San Quentin at all,” said David Sears, associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
Sears visited San Quentin on June 13 at the request of a federal receiver overseeing inmate health care at state prisons pursuant to a federal court’s 2005 finding that California fails to provide constitutionally adequate medical care to prisoners.
San Quentin, a 168-year-old prison in Marin County north of San Francisco, reported zero confirmed Covid-19 cases in May. That was before 121 prisoners were transferred there in late May from the California Institution for Men in Chino, a prison with the deadliest Covid-19 outbreak in the state. As of Wednesday, 1,135 San Quentin inmates had been infected with Covid-19.
Testifying during a California Senate Public Safety Committee meeting, federal receiver Clark Kelso explained how infected prisoners were transferred to San Quentin despite a policy that requires inmates test negative for the virus prior to any transfer.
Kelso said the intention was to move uninfected inmates from Chino to San Quentin, but because the protocol did not specify how long a negative test would remain valid, inmates were transferred two to three weeks after they tested negative for the virus. By that time, the tests had become “too old to be a good indicator of the absence of Covid-19,” Kelso said.
Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, voiced frustration that state prison officials allowed such a blunder to occur.
“By the end of May we fully understood and had adequate testing, so how could there have been the transfer of people who had not been tested for two to three weeks?” Skinner asked. “It’s abhorrent and I don’t understand it.”
After learning of the outbreak at San Quentin, Kelso tapped Sears and other public health experts to inspect the facility. Sears reported the prison’s five-tier cell blocks are set up like dorms and lack proper ventilation, the perfect conditions for rapidly spreading the virus.
Aside from urging prison officials to immediately start reducing the population, Sears recommended an emergency response team be assembled to oversee virus containment measures, testing, inmate health care and staff training. He also suggested the facility ramp up testing for correctional officers and staff.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation manages 35 state prisons. As of Wednesday, the agency reported 2,585 active Covid-19 cases among inmates and 22 deaths. For correctional officers and staff, 477 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The department has suspended accepting new inmates from county jails through July 29 to prevent a potential worsening of the outbreak.
Kelso said he sent a team to visit 15 or 16 state prisons and report back on compliance with mask wearing, social distancing and other procedures. He said the team reported that only one institution, the prison in Chino, was not complying with the requirements.
“I don’t see how they can not take it seriously given the outbreak there,” Kelso said.
Karen Franklin, a licensed nurse who works at San Quentin, also told lawmakers that access to personal protective equipment has been “dismal at best.” She described nurses grabbing N95 masks out of hazmat bags and cleaning them with Clorox wipes. She said nurses had to reuse medical gowns until they became tattered or wear trash bags around their bodies for protection.
Employees have been forced to work extra shifts until they are “physically and emotionally exhausted,” she added. Some employees sleep in their cars because they are too tried to drive home after their shifts, she said.
“When we inform our supervisors we are unable to work an extra shift because of exhaustion, we are threatened with adverse action,” Franklin testified.
Sam Lewis, a former San Quentin inmate who now serves as executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, questioned why it took an outbreak at a prison in the San Francisco Bay Area before state officials started taking the issue seriously. He noted that 16 inmates had already died at the Chino prison.
“There seemingly to me was not enough outrage and uproar to those deaths,” Lewis said. “It seemed to me if we had jumped on it then, maybe it would have never reached San Quentin.”
A woman who identified herself as Adrian also testified Wednesday, telling lawmakers that her 63-year-old father who is in remission from cancer is housed at San Quentin and at very high risk of developing life-threatening symptoms.
“My dad is the most important person in my life,” she said. “No one will answer my calls or emails regarding his wellbeing.”
Skinner said an existing state law empowers the Department of Corrections to grant early parole to people who are elderly or have serious medical conditions. She urged the state to start using that authority to reduce the inmate population at state prisons.
“Given that we know the death rate is higher for medically fragile and elderly people, then it only makes sense for the department to use the statutory tools we’ve given them,” Skinner said.