Federal Judge Urges California to Release Vulnerable Inmates

(CN) — As Covid-19 continues its inexorable spread throughout California’s state prisons, a federal judge implored corrections officials to release elderly inmates and those with serious health conditions to free up bed space. 

“I don’t have the power to order the release of medically vulnerable inmates, but the state does have that power and it is imperative that the state exercise that power immediately,” U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar said at a hearing Thursday. 

Tigar said he was dismayed by what he saw when he toured California State Prison Solano and California Medical Facility in Vacaville on Monday.

“What I saw at CMF was gravely concerning. People at CMF are living on top of each other. Many of the men there use wheelchairs or walkers. Some of them need help breathing.” Tigar said, adding it’s difficult to imagine the elderly inmates living in such crowded dormitories in the best of circumstances, “but with the threat of Covid, living conditions have become unimaginable.”

He said many of the inmates he saw no longer pose any danger to public safety, but their own underlying health conditions make them especially susceptible to Covid-19 — and threaten the health of other inmates, prison staff and nearby communities. 

Among these inmates are a 72-year-old man with rectal cancer whose been in prison for 42 years; an 81-year-old man with hypertension and lung disease incarcerated for 31 years; a 35-year-old with a ventricular assist device; and a 65-year-old who has been locked up for 41 years and suffers from coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, lung disease, stage three kidney failure, sleep apnea, and sarcoidosis.

Most of these men, Tigar said, have received no write-ups for bad behavior and have family members willing to take them in if they’re released. 

“I’ve sentenced people to life sentences in order to protect my community. Punishment has a legitimate role in sentencing criminal defendants. But I simply cannot believe all the restrictions on the release of medically vulnerable inmates are required to protect public safety,” he said. “To those that oppose the large-scale release of medically vulnerable inmates — if you don’t think it’s necessary, go into the prisons and see for yourself. That’s what I did. If you visit CMF, you will come to the same conclusion I have.”

He said the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation must clear as much space as possible in its 33 state prisons to quarantine infected inmates. “When an inmate gets sick the staff must be able to isolate and quarantine that inmate,” he said. At this point, prisons are so overcrowded that physical distancing is impossible. 

Tigar has been overseeing a two-decade class action over inadequate health care and prison overcrowding led by inmate Marciano Plata. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that the CDCR must reduce its inmate population to 137.5% of capacity, upholding a 2009 order by a panel of three federal judges in California.

So far Tigar has allowed the CDCR to manage the Covid-19 threat with little direct intervention from the court, but he’s scheduled regular case management conferences to track the state’s progress. 

At the latest conference on Thursday, Tigar said he’s hoping to prevent what’s happened in San Quentin State Prison, which saw its first cases after 121 prisoners were transferred there in late May from the California Institution for Men in Chino, a coronavirus hotspot. 

The San Francisco Chronicle reported in June that 15 of the prisoners transferred to San Quentin later tested positive for Covid-19. 

As of Thursday, 1,399 San Quentin inmates had been infected with Covid-19, and 1,079 of those cases are from the last 14 days.

Corcoran State Prison also received 66 transfers in late May — including one who tested positive — and while it previously had no cases, its number of confirmed cases stands at 157.

Tigar noted that 20 prisoners were just diagnosed with Covid-19 at the California Institution for Men but remain housed in a dormitory with uninfected prisoners because there is no other housing available. “How can that be happening?” he said.

CDCR officials say they’ve installed Lexan glass barriers in the dorms have marked six-foot boundaries on the floor with tape.

State legislators blasted the corrections department for its mismanagement of the health crisis at a hearing Wednesday. State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said she could not understand how prison officials could allow transfers between prisons without first testing the inmates.

“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.”

In a joint case management statement filed Wednesday, CDCR said it just canceled a planned transfer of a group of vulnerable inmates to another prison after two tested positive. “But, in coordination with California Correctional Health Care Services, CDCR is considering transferring up to 300 inmates who have recovered from Covid-19 from San Quentin to other prisons to reduce the population at San Quentin,” the agency said.

Officials also plan to release 14 medically high-risk inmates from San Quentin if they can verify that those prisoners have a residence where they can stay after being released. Tigar said that’s not nearly enough. 

According to counsel for the inmate class every prison has at least one incarcerated person or staff member who has tested positive. 

“If CDCR does not release and physically distance in its facilities it will face more outbreaks like at San Quentin, and there will be needless deaths. There needs to be empty cells to move inmates into,” Tigar said. “Inmate releases should be driven by population targets set by public health doctors and staff within the facilities who know how much room they need. The staff in your prisons know who these inmates are. Ask them and they will tell you.”

Some institutions will need to release more than others, Tigar said, but “the releases need to happen immediately. There simply is no time to wait. By the time an institution like CMF has its first case, it’s too late. You need to create the space now so the space is there when Covid arrives at the prison.”

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