California to Release 8,000 Inmates as Covid Tears Through Prison System

Inmates walk through the exercise yard at California State Prison Sacramento, near Folsom, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

(CN) — California moved to release 8,000 prisoners as criticism mounts over the state’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak in its prison system. 

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced Friday that California Governor Gavin Newsom will act to remove 8,000 inmates from its overcrowded prison system that is experiencing brutal Covid-19 outbreaks within its walls. 

“We’re glad the governor is taking action to release more people,” said Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice. “This is absolutely critical for the health and safety of every Californian.”

San Quentin State Prison in Marin County is the epicenter of one of the most vicious outbreaks in the nation right now, with 1,314 confirmed cases and seven deaths among the population. 

All told, there are 2,328 confirmed cases within the state prison system, which is made up of 35 facilities across the state. Thirty-one inmates have died to date. 

“We are in the middle of a humanitarian crisis,” said California Assemblyman Rob Bonta, a Democrat from Alameda County, during a press conference Thursday. “The saddest part is that it was an unforced error.”

Bonta was referring to the May transfer of prisoners from the California Institution for Men in Chino, some of whom brought the coronavirus with them to San Quentin, where nearly one-third of prisoners have now tested positive. 

“San Quentin is an old facility with poor ventilation,” said Dr Eric Smith, a public health official. “These housing conditions do not permit basic health measures to prevent coronavirus spread.”

Smith said the only way to control the outbreak is to release some of the inmates.

The Golden State appears poised to do just that. 

On Friday, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced they had identified 8,000 prisoners eligible for early release. The release will make it possible for inmates and prison staff to achieve the social distancing previously impossible due to chronically crowded conditions. 

“These actions are taken to provide for the health and safety of the incarcerated population and staff,” CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz said. “We aim to implement these decompression measures in a way that aligns both public health and public safety.”

Diaz said the state has already released 10,000 inmates from the state prison system in an effort to maximize space available for social distancing. 

Many of the additional prisoners will be released according to how close they are to completing their sentences. 

The prison system has already adjusted its rules to allow for the release of medically vulnerable patients, including those whose lives are endangered by the outbreak. 

All individuals will be tested within seven days of release to ensure they do not become catalysts for community spread. 

Many critics of the state’s response to outbreaks in the prison system say the disease only reveals long-festering problems of overcrowding and inhumane conditions in the system. The state has been operating under a court order since 2009 which mandates the state’s prisons cannot be above 137.5% of planned total capacity. 

“The state of California has been addicted to incarcerating more and more people for longer periods,” said state Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco. “When you’re overcrowding prisons it’s not surprising when you have a problem with Covid-19.”

Along with mandates about capacity, a 1995 federal case concluded with a ruling that the CDCR routinely failed to provide adequate medical care to its inmates. The medical care portion of the state prison system has been in a federal receivership since 2006. 

Several criminal justice advocates praised the state for taking action to reduce the prison population as the state grapples with an expanding pandemic.

“We applaud the governor for working on two crucial fronts: getting the most vulnerable people out of harm’s way and stemming the spread of Covid-19 inside prisons and neighboring communities,” said Anne Irwin, director of Smart Justice California.

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