Report: Overcrowded, aging facilities behind COVID-19 surges in California prisons

CBS News Bay Area

SAN QUENTIN – Overcrowding, aging facilities and a lack of coordination led to nearly 80,000 COVID-19 cases across the state's prison system, according to a report from the University of California, San Francisco, and UC Berkeley.

The report found that while the state's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation achieved some successes in curbing the virus' spread - including the vaccination of 81 percent of inmates and 73 percent of prison staff - some 50,000 cases of the virus had been confirmed among inmates by December 2021 while 16,000 cases were confirmed among staff.

As of Tuesday, roughly 78,000 cases of the virus have been confirmed among inmates, including 254 deaths. In addition, 50 CDCR staff members have died due to the virus.

"We believe that state policymakers and prison managers should look closely at the lessons learned in this crisis to help assure we're better prepared in the future," said Dr. Brie Williams, a medical professor at UCSF and co-editor of the report.

"This includes giving attention to massively reducing the prison population in our state in the interest of public health, as overcrowding is likely the single greatest health threat in a respiratory pandemic," Williams said.

The report was produced by a collaborative project between researchers at the two universities in an effort to advise state officials about how to improve health care within the state's prison system.

The project began before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but has since focused on the virus under the name California Prison Roadmap for Targeting Efforts to Address the Ecosystem of COVID Transmission, or CalPROTECT.

Researchers argued in the report that many of the state's 34 adult prisons were overcrowded when the pandemic began, with roughly 120,000 inmates incarcerated across the prison system in March 2020.

As of Dec. 15, 2021, the average adult prison was 13 percent over its designed inmate capacity, with nine more than 30 percent over capacity, according to the report.

In addition to the overcrowding, the report argued that many buildings across the prison system were inadequate to provide the social distancing and isolation necessary to curb outbreaks of any respiratory virus, let alone COVID-19.

The system's roughly 50,000 staff members were also put at risk as a result, and may have inadvertently spread the virus outside the prison in which they worked.

In the Bay Area, San Quentin State Prison was admonished in a 2021 report by the state's Office of the Inspector General, which determined that the transfer of 122 inmates from the California Institution for Men led to an outbreak of more than 2,000 cases and 28 deaths among inmates at the prison.

The report also found that the CDCR and California Correctional Health Care Services, which oversees health care within the state prison system, improperly tested inmates before the transfer and cut corners to move medically vulnerable inmates out of the Chino facility by the end of May 2020.

Cal/OSHA subsequently fined San Quentin $421,880 after finding that prison staff did not have the proper training or protective equipment to handle inmates and other staff members who had contracted the virus.

A Marin County Superior Court judge also found in November that the CDCR and San Quentin had violated inmates' rights by conducting the inmate transfer from the California Institution for Men.

CDCR said in a statement that it and CCHCS took "extraordinary measures" to protect inmates and prison staff from the virus, including requiring the use of masks on prison grounds, providing personal protective equipment as needed and maintaining a "robust" mandatory testing program for prison staff.

"CDCR and CCHCS remained strongly committed to responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency and to protecting both staff and the incarcerated population," the CDCR said. "We worked tirelessly to implement measures in the face of a brand new virus, inherent constraints that exist with a critical 24/7 public safety operation that involves hundreds of thousands of individuals and their loved ones."

The report's researchers argued that state officials will have to consider many solutions, including investing in more modernized prison infrastructure and a reduction in the state's overall prison population, to avoid similar outcomes during future surges of COVID and any future outbreaks of other respiratory viruses, novel or known.

"Making strides in each of these areas requires the mobilization of significant resources and—in the case of decarceration—profound political will," the researchers said.

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