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Thousands Of California Prison Inmates Set To Be Released Because Of COVID-19 Outbreaks

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- California Governor Gavin Newsom was set to announce the release of thousands of prison inmates in a move prompted by a worsening coronavirus outbreak at San Quentin State Prison and a number of other prison facilities.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) on Friday said it estimates 8,000 currently incarcerated persons could be eligible for release by end of August under release authority granted to the CDCR Secretary allowing alternative confinement or release in any case in which an emergency endangering the lives of incarcerated persons has occurred or is imminent.

The 8,000 inmates to be released are in addition to the state's reduction of about 10,000 inmates since the start of the pandemic.

"We're glad the Governor is taking action to release more people. This is absolutely critical for the health and safety of every Californian," said Jay Jordan, Executive Director, Californians for Safety and Justice in a prepared statement. "Too many people are incarcerated for too long in facilities that spread poor health. Supporting the health and safety of all Californians means releasing people unnecessarily incarcerated and transforming our justice system"

"These actions are taken to provide for the health and safety of the incarcerated population and staff," said CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz in a statement. "We aim to implement these decompression measures in a way that aligns both public health and public safety."

For all those releasing under these efforts, CDCR is making victim notifications in accordance with all CDCR procedures and state law.

In order to be eligible, inmates must meet the following criteria:
• Have 180 days or less to serve on their sentence
• Are not currently serving time for domestic violence or a violent crime as defined by law
• Have no current or prior sentences that require them to register as a sex offender under Penal Code 290
• Not have an assessment score that indicates a high risk for violence

On Thursday, Diaz issued an open letter to all California prison inmates announcing 12 weeks of credit to all inmates in CDCR custody, except those found guilty of a serious rules violation between March 1 and July 5.

In the letter, Diaz acknowledged "the significant burden you and your families continue to bear as a result of the extraordinary changes we have made to our operations" as a result of the COVID-19 outbreaks. The measures include suspension of visits, reduced phone call opportunities, program suspensions and extremely limited movement.

"To continue to effectively fight this virus, we must create more space in our prisons, both to expand physical distancing to slow COVID-19's spread and to ease some of the immense challenges staff face every day," said Diaz. "To do this, CDCR is expediting some releases and exploring other options."

The prison credits are expected to be applied by August 1 and apply to about 108,000 inmates, making about 3,100 eligible for release as soon as next month. Among them are inmates in state firefighting camps that have seen dwindling numbers as the earlier releases have mounted.

Gov. Newsom had made a point that the earlier releases excluded sex offenders, violent and serious felons and those convicted of domestic violence as part of "a very methodical process."

More than 2,300 people at state prisons currently have active infections among a total of 5,814 cases as of Friday morning, according to data from CDCR. At least 31 inmates have died. More than 700 CDCR staff have also contracted the virus.

Diaz's announcement on Thursday came just hours after Newsom seemingly again rejected increasingly strident calls for the wholesale release of inmates particularly as an uncontrolled outbreak sweeps through San Quentin State Prison after a botched transfer of infected inmates.

State lawmakers and advocates gathered Thursday at San Quentin to call for more releases, and Newsom met earlier this week with one of two federal judges who are taking preliminary steps to order widespread releases.

But the governor seemed to criticize those calling for freeing inmates without careful consideration.

"Just the other day, someone presented to me a case of an individual, a young child the age of my son that was strapped up in a closet with duct tape and was killed by a man as he bled out. That's not someone that's high on my list in terms of release," he said.

"When people are just saying just release thousands and thousands of people, I hope they're being thoughtful and considerate of not only the victims but the prospects of people re-offending," Newsom added.

Christine Ward, executive director of Crime Victims Alliance, said she's concerned at the rate of releases.

"We believe that COVID-19 has presented this administration with a perfect storm to use in efforts to empty out California State Prisons and close prisons," she said in a written statement. "This pandemic should not be used as a launching board to empty prisons as ultimately it will negatively impact the public's safety."


© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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