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COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing in San Quentin, Corcoran


SAN QUENTIN — Over the past 30 days, California’s oldest prison has gone from having zero coronavirus cases to being on the fast track to becoming the most infected prison in the state system.

According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s COVID-19 tracker — which is updated in real time and rapidly increasing — there are now more than 300 active cases in San Quentin. This is a sixfold increase from eight days ago, when there were 48 reported cases in the prison.

All of the reported cases came after CDCR transfer nearly 200 inmates from the California Institution for Men — a prison in Chino with 850 active coronavirus cases — to San Quentin and Corcoran prisons. The transfer plan was announced May 28, and since then, more than 450 cases have cumulatively been reported at both prisons.

No one has died of COVID-19 in either San Quentin or Corcoran, but there is growing distress that the virus will spread through the 168-year-old prison faster than officials can contain it.

“This is unconscionable,” said a Saturday news release by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a pro-decarceration nonprofit based in Oakland. “We have been asking for mass releases from CDCR, including San Quentin State Prison since March. We knew this would happen. We also know that this will lead to death. This outbreak was preventable.”

In response to the growth of COVID-19 in California prisons — there are roughly 3,700 reported cases and 19 people in prisons have been killed by the virus — CDCR announced last week it is going to streamline parole and early releases. These efforts, “will create increased capacity and space to help with inmate movement, physical distancing and isolation efforts,” a CDCR spokeswoman said in a Thursday news release.

Inmates who have 180 days or fewer left to serve on their sentences will be eligible for expedited parole, except for those serving sentences for domestic violence, a violent or serious crime as defined by law, or registered sex offenders.

Meanwhile, a steadily increasing number of voices have called for an investigation into the decision to transfer inmates from Chino. Assemblyman Marc Levine — whose district includes San Quentin — put out a news release last week blasting CDCR, calling the transfers the result of, “a series [of] poorly managed actions,” and saying that inmates weren’t tested immediately before being moved to new prisons.

“In April, I raised red flags about the lack of a clear, site specific COVID-19 plan by CDCR and the dangerous potential of a COVID-19 infection spike at San Quentin State Prison,” Levine said in the news release. “Those concerns were dismissed. In May, I renewed my call for immediate action by CDCR and San Quentin leadership to prevent an even larger COVID-19 public health crisis. Those concerns were dismissed. Now in mid-June and with COVID-19 infections at San Quentin spiking among inmates and staff, serious questions are being raised about CDCR and San Quentin’s ability to limit the spread of this deadly disease and this preventable crisis.”

A look at the coronavirus trajectory for both San Quentin and Corcoran prisons show a similar pattern. On May 31, San Quentin had zero active cases. The next day, one was reported. By June 8, there were 16.

Over the next week, the virus exploded; 196 active cases were reported on June 15. The latest tally, released around 5 p.m. Monday, puts the number of active cases at 317.

Corcoran reported its first active case on May 29. A week after that, there were 93 cases. On June 19, 153 active cases were reported. The latest tally, released Monday, is slightly lower, at 149, according to CDCR’s public tracker database.

“What you’re seeing at San Quentin is exactly what we’d always feared,” Michael Bien, a San Francisco attorney whose firm is suing Santa Rita Jail over mental healthcare for inmates, told the Marin Independent Journal last week. “Once infected people are in the prison there simply is not enough room to quarantine inmates and keep the virus from spreading.”



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