Advocates fear resurgence of COVID-19 at crowded San Quentin prison

Eleven weeks since the coronavirus first invaded San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, population reports show the prison is still over capacity and new health issues are causing concerns.

Currently, 105 inmates have active cases of COVID-19. Since the last few days in May, the virus has infected more than 2,200 prisoners and 270 staff members. So far, 25 inmates and one corrections officer have died from the virus. But more than 2,000 have recovered.

“It’s overcrowded,” inmate Juan Haines said. “It’s the perfect environment for the virus and it’s the perfect environment for people to die in, which people are.”

The outbreak first occurred after the state transferred 121 inmates from another prison in Chino where the virus had already taken hold. State corrections officials failed to test the inmates immediately before the transfer to San Quentin, causing COVID-19 to arrive and spread rapidly inside the old, poorly ventilated prison.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it has since taken aggressive measures to protect inmates and staff and mitigate COVID-19 including health care treatment at the prison and a 250-bed alternative care site.

"San Quentin is offering testing every seven days to the incarcerated population who have previously tested negative or who have refused a test in the past," spokesperson Dana Simas said. "We have provided the population with ongoing printed and verbal education on the importance of testing and how they can help protect themselves and others."

The state’s Patient Tracker shows several dozen have been released, however, some health care workers, advocates, prison attorneys, inmates and their loved ones express it’s not enough.

“The state has done far too little to address population and has done far too little to address moving the medically vulnerable to safety,” civil rights attorney Michael Bien said.

His law firm has taken the state to court over California’s overcrowded prisons. Bien said he was surprised to find that out of the 6,500 California inmates deemed high-risk, only eight of them have been released.

CDCR said it has taken comprehensive actions to fight the outbreak including an expedited transition to parole of 3,500 inmates statewide, a suspension of intake from county jails and other release actions to reduce population and maximize space.

At San Quentin, one of the oldest prisons, many of the inmates are elderly and almost half have underlying health conditions. 

With nearly 70% of inmates contracting the virus, public defenders from several counties including San Francisco, Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara have filed 44 requests in Marin County Superior Court calling for a judge to grant immediate releases of inmates.

“We intend to prove that the Department of Corrections insistence upon keeping people caged in these conditions violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment,” San Francisco Public Defender Danielle Harris said. "Resurgences have happened, they are happening and they will happen again."

As infections show signs of slowing, new concerns are being raised by prison health care workers. One of the state workers expressed frustration over tracking down patients. Tents were setup to spread people out but that’s not the case anymore. They’ve since come down.

“They were full and then they were emptied,” a health care worker named Guy said. “I had to search where those people were housed and that took me the better part of a day. Housing decisions are not transparent.”

The worry among health care workers is with inmates being moved from place to place, reducing the ability to know who has the virus and where infected inmates are housed. Ultimately, it eliminates the ability to contact trace.

Bien, who is still actively in litigation against the state, provided detailed information of those inmates who died from the virus statewide. In total there are 53 with the average age among them being 64 years. Mostly, they are people of color, those suffering mental illness or living with a disability. More than a dozen of them were set to be released this year or next, he said.

“It’s just as we predicted,” Bien said. “We know lives can be saved if we act now.”

State data shows a new outbreak unfolding at Folsom State Prison, which has a similar setup and architecture as at San Quentin. CDCR said it is putting up tents and taking precautions to keep inmates and staff safe.

This story was updated with more details and a response from CDCR.

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at brooks.jarosz@foxtv.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @BrooksKTVU