Thousands to be released in San Quentin, prison coronavirus response

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Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration on Friday green-lighted the early release of more than 8,000 state prison inmates in response to surging COVID-19 infections in California prisons, in essence conceding their inability to control the virus among the incarcerated.

The releases, set to occur on a “rolling basis” between now and the end of August, will involve low-level offenders and older inmates who officials say pose less risk to public safety. An as-yet-uncertain number of those may actually have the virus at the time of release and will be moved into quarantine; others will be infection-free but are being released because the state cannot guarantee their safety while in prison.

Newsom and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation have been under intense pressure to take action after an explosive outbreak at San Quentin State Prison, which as of Friday accounts for 1,331 of the state’s 2,318 active COVID-19 prison cases.

“The decision today by Gov. Newsom to ramp up safe prison releases is a credit to the advocacy of people and organizations throughout the state who have demanded clear action to protect public health and safety,” Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, said in a statement. “It’s ironic that California has a moratorium on the death penalty, yet people are being killed in prisons by way of COVID.”

It is not the first such action California has been forced to take, and it may not be the last.

Since the end of March, the state prison system has decreased its population from 126,000 to about 113,000, partially by releasing low-level offenders near the end of their sentences. Alameda County Chief Public Defender Brendon Woods contends that another 60,000 low-risk inmates can be released. He called the Friday news “a step in the right direction” but said it falls short of what is needed.

“It barely scratches the surface of the enormous problem of COVID in prisons,” Woods said. “I would go as far as saying it’s severely deficient.”

San Quentin has recorded seven deaths to date, and about 70 inmates have been hospitalized outside the facility. The virus is also spreading from the prison into the community as workers come and go.

Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County’s public health officer, called the situation a “disaster” and said the prison is “set up for another outbreak.” The state Office of Emergency Services is constructing a 200-bed field hospital on the prison grounds to offset the impact on local hospitals.

According to state corrections officials and Willis, those eligible for early release will be tested for COVID-19 seven days before their exit date, and anyone who tests positive or is believed to be exposed to the virus will be given a hotel room in which to quarantine through the state-funded prison transition program Project Hope. Those who do not test positive are still being encouraged to quarantine, and if they don’t have a home, they are eligible for a room through Project Roomkey, a newer state program to protect unhoused people from the virus.

That’s a key concern for Marin County Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, who said the state completely “failed to plan” for a rash of infections it should have anticipated months ago.

“The Department of Corrections is in panic mode, but they also need to carefully evaluate each prisoner’s rehabilitation and chance for success — and as each prisoner is released, ensure that housing support and probation services are available to them immediately,” Levine said.

Prison and jail outbreaks have worsened as the state grapples with the pandemic’s worst fallout yet. California topped 300,000 cases Thursday and hit all-time records for both average cases and average daily deaths, while hospitalizations have climbed upwards for nearly two weeks to 7,821 patients.

Most of San Quentin’s COVID-19 infections surfaced in the past two weeks after 121 inmates, many carrying the virus, were transferred there in late May from the California Institution for Men in Chino. That decision was widely criticized, and led to the demotion of the state prisons’ top medical officer and the installation of a court-appointed federal receiver to oversee that part of the system.

James King, a former San Quentin inmate and a state campaigner for the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, has called for Newsom to tour the prison to see the dire conditions himself. At a news conference in front of the prison Thursday, he read a letter from an inmate who said he was bedridden and vomiting but only infrequently allowed to bathe. The letter described how sick inmates can be heard frequently shrieking in pain.

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