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Groups call for action about COVID-19 cases in San Quentin

Bay City News Service

SF Gate 

June 16, 2020

Original article: https://www.sfgate.com/news/bayarea/article/Groups-Call-For-Action-About-Covid-19-Cases-In-15344805.php

 

Criminal justice advocates with Oakland's Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a group of former San Quentin State Prison inmates and the families of current inmates called on state officials Tuesday to take decisive steps to end what they say is a COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak at the prison.

The coalition demanded the state take eight different steps to reduce overcrowding, ramp up testing and improve conditions at the prison to ensure that the virus does not spread further than it already has.

The demands include a call for Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to release some inmates and end inmate transfers between prisons to reduce San Quentin's population, which is already roughly 122 percent of its maximum capacity, according to CDCR data from April.

The groups also demanded that the state make testing available to all inmates, provide free hygiene supplies and stamps and expand access to credit-earning opportunities, free phone calls and tele-visiting privileges.

"It's just a matter of time before (coronavirus) is running rampant throughout all of San Quentin," said Arlethia King, the mother of an inmate at the prison. "I'm just praying that the governor is able to step up and do something quicker."

A spokeswoman for the CDCR said San Quentin's testing rate is roughly three times the state and national coronavirus testing rates and state correctional officials are working to secure the capacity for mass testing both at San Quentin and the state prison system at large.

The state has also installed alcohol-based hand sanitizer stations in areas where sinks and soap are not available and prison facilities are being routinely cleaned and sanitized. Mandated staff testing is also underway at San Quentin and four other state prisons, according to CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas.

"CDCR takes the health and safety of our incarcerated population and the community-at-large very seriously and have taken unprecedented steps to address this public health crisis," Simas said via email, noting that prisons have also reduced dorm density, provided temperature screening and masks and suspended in-person visiting.

"We will continue to expand on our efforts to safely and securely increase physical distancing within our institutions," she said.

According to the CDCR, 33 inmates at San Quentin have tested positive for the coronavirus, to date, and 3,219 inmates across the state's prison system have tested positive.

Some of those cases at San Quentin, the coalition of criminal justice activists said, stem from a May 30 transfer of 121 inmates from the California Institution for Men, a Southern California facility that had roughly 500 active cases at the time and had reported 13 coronavirus-related deaths.

San Quentin had zero confirmed cases prior to the transfer, according to the coalition. At least four inmates transferred from the California Institution for Men have since tested positive, the group said.

Although some 3,500 inmates at state prisons have been released early to reduce the strain of overcrowding, the quickest way to control the virus' spread throughout the prison system, the group argued, is to reduce the prison population even further.

Until that time, inmates will seldom be able to follow now-common public health guidelines such as physical distancing.

"Well-meaning public health proposals devised for people in the outside world cannot and will not help the spread inside San Quentin because the central problem is that the prison needs to be nearly empty before these measures can be successful," said Sue Chan, a health care worker and the mother of an inmate at San Quentin.

The coalition plans to hold a day of action to demand changes to the conditions in state prisons during the pandemic and call for state officials to prevent the pandemic from spreading any further.

The Ella Baker Center and the non-profit organization Restore Justice will also hold a virtual town hall at 6 p.m. Tuesday for family members of inmates at San Quentin State Prison and to discuss the state of the prison system in relation to the coronavirus pandemic.

People can RSVP to the event at facebook.com/events/695253174383349.

Copyright © 2020 by Bay City News, Inc.

Some inmates at California state prisons eligible for early release to stem coronavirus spread

Eric Licas

The Orange County Register 

June 16, 2020, updated June 17, 2020

Original article: https://www.ocregister.com/2020/06/16/some-inmates-at-california-state-prisons-eligible-for-early-release-to-stem-coronavirus-spread/

State prison inmates in California who have less than 180 days left to serve and meet certain other criteria will be released ahead of schedule beginning Wednesday, July 1, in hopes of stemming outbreaks of COVID-19, officials said Tuesday.

The move aims to increase space inside state prisons, thereby allowing for better physical distancing and the isolation of patients, and could impact prisoners at facilities throughout California. Those who are allowed to leave prison ahead of schedule will be offered COVID-19 tests, California Depatment of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials said in a news release.

Prisoners found to be infected prior to release will be placed into a housing situation that will allow for isolation and monitoring.

Eligible inmates either will be placed on state-supervised parole, transferred to county-run “post-release community supervision,” or have the remainder of their sentence discharged, depending on the circumstances of their incarceration, CDCR officials said. Early release will not be eligible to those found guilty of violent crimes or those who must register as sex offenders. Inmates paroled as part of the emergency health measure may be brought back into custody “for any reason” to continue serving their sentences.

The purpose of releasing inmates early is “to amplify actions to protect staff and inmates at the state’s prisons from the spread of COVID-19,” prison officials said.

More than 3,200 inmates and over 560 staff members at California prisons have tested positive for COVID-19, according to CDCR statistics. There were 2,123 prisoners held at state-run facilities actively infected with the virus as of Tuesday evening.

So far, the largest outbreaks have occurred at the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (CVSP) in Blythe and the California Institution for Men (CIM) in Chino. Officials had recorded 1,003 and 802 cases at those facilities, respectively. Fifteen out of the 17 CDCR inmates who have died after contracting the novel coronavirus were held at CIM.

It was not immediately clear how many state prisoners will be released ahead of schedule as part of the plan unveiled by the CDCR on Tuesday. Earlier, officials had announced the expedited parole of about 3,500 inmates in April. State prisons have also halted non-essential visits and the intake of inmates from county jails. The overall population at CDCR facilities throughout California has shrunk by more than 8,000 inmates since mid-March, prison officials said.

Santa Rita Jail Confirms More COVID-19 Cases

By Larry Altman 

Apr 16, 2020

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley and Public Defender Brendon Woods battled publicly last week over the issue of releasing inmates from the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin to stem the spread of COVID-19 within the facility.

Arguing she was balancing public safety with inmates’ rights to protect their health, O’Malley accused Woods of grandstanding when he called for her and judicial officials to release all inmates with sentences of six months or less to serve.

Woods issued the request following the disclosure that 12 inmates and two staff members had tested positive for the coronavirus by April 9. Woods said decreasing the jail population was the best way to prevent the COVID-19 spread.

“We’ve been sounding the alarm for three weeks, and now we are on the verge of the virus sweeping through the jail,” Woods said in a statement. “I don’t think prosecutors have gotten the message about how serious this is. They’re moving far too slowly, and now people in custody are getting sick.”

Sheriff’s Department officials disclosed March 25 that a nurse on staff had tested positive. On April 4, they announced that the first inmate had the illness and that measures were being taken to prevent a spread. By April 8, that number had reached two staff members and 12 inmates. On Sunday, the department reported two more staff/contractors had tested positive. By Monday, the agency reported that 15 inmates had tested positive, but decreased the number to nine after six recovered.

Woods called the positive tests the “tip of the iceberg”, and said he did not want Santa Rita Jail to become like jails in Chicago and New York City where the virus was rapidly spreading. He estimated that 115 Santa Rita inmates were serving sentences of less than six months, including 59 set to be released by the end of May.

“We want those people out right now,” Woods said. “What possible justification can the (district attorney) offer to keep them locked up for three more weeks in the midst of this virus? A county jail sentence should not be a death sentence.”

In response, O’Malley said her office was working for weeks with Woods’ office, defense attorneys and others “to systematically release individuals who do not pose a risk of harm to the community or to a victim of crime.”

O’Malley said her office was doing all it could to address the pandemic but had an obligation to protect the public from serious and violent offenders.

“This office takes very seriously the duty to balance a defendant’s rights with public safety,” O’Malley said in a statement. “It is very disappointing that the public defender has chosen this time of crisis to grandstand and to make politically divisive and disingenuous statements when what the circumstances demand of all public officials is unity and collaboration.”

O’Malley and the Sheriff’s Department said they had been taking steps to reduce the jail population, which, according to sheriff’s officials, had declined from 2,597 inmates on March 1 to 1,979 on April 8. Another 54 inmates were released by Sunday, dropping the population to 1,925. On Monday, the agency reported 1,929 inmates in the jail.

O’Malley said an average week’s filings were down 70% from a year ago since the county’s shelter-in-place order. Most crimes, other than three serious felonies, were filed and set for court dates 60 days out so defendants could be released while waiting. Those three serious cases required court dates within two days.

In other cases, O’Malley said her prosecutors were working with defense attorneys to release defendants on their own recognizance. On March 19, prosecutors agreed to release 247 inmates, knocking up to 80 days off their sentences. By the end of March, nine more Santa Rita inmates with “vulnerable health conditions” were released early. The office is now reviewing cases of people scheduled to be reduced by the end of May.

O’Malley said prosecutors did not agree to release some inmates, including a woman who tortured her 5-year-old child.

“Regardless of whether or not a defense attorney makes a request, the district attorney’s office continues to look at individuals with less than 60 days left on their sentence and are making recommendations to the reviewing judge that we do not oppose early release in appropriate cases,” she said.

Woods, who said race also played a role in his request to release inmates because statistics have shown blacks in the U.S. dying of COVID-19 at a higher rate than others, did not like O’Malley’s charge that he was grandstanding.

“Amazing how quickly you get accused of ‘grandstanding’ when you stand up for the rights of poor people, the rights of black and brown people, the rights of those locked in cages,” Woods wrote on Twitter. “I’ll take it.”

In other action that could help to reduce the numbers of people waiting in jail for court dates to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Judicial Council of California last week voted to set zero bail for misdemeanor and lesser felonies. The temporary order that began Monday will end cash bail until 90 days after Gov. Gavin Newsom terminates the state of emergency.

The order could serve as an experiment before voters decide the issue of whether to end cash bail on November’s ballot. Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 10 in 2018, ending the payment of money as the deciding factor in who remains behind bars while awaiting court proceedings and giving that discretion to judges.

The law was halted from taking effect after election officials certified the ballot measure. The state’s 3,200 bail bonds companies, with their profession at risk of being outlawed, opposed the law.

Civil rights attorney DeWitt Lacy, of Oakland’s John L. Burris law firm, called the Judicial Council’s decision to eliminate bail for lesser felonies fair because jails are “petri dishes for the coronavirus.”

“The criminal justice system is not meant to be one that exacts revenge by sentencing someone to death,” he said.

Lacy said he saw no harm in allowing people arrested for lesser crimes like shoplifting, jaywalking and outstanding parking tickets to remain out of custody.

“I think we might be surprised it works very well,” he said.

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