Through March, April, and May, while the country dealt with the coronavirus pandemic sweeping through cities, communities, and jails, there were no reported infections at California's San Quentin prison. But in one month, more than 1,000 people incarcerated there have been confirmed to be infected, and one person has died.
Public health officials say that the sharp increase in infected incarcerated patients at the San Quentin facility can be traced back to a transfer of at least 121 incarcerated men from the state prison in Chino, California. (Some outlets put the number at 122 transfers.) The goal of the transfer was to address overcrowding at the Chino state prison, a men's facility, though the move led to the sharpest increase in COVID-19 infections of any other jail or prison in the state.
Just one week ago, the San Quentin prison reported only 219 infections. Now, at least 1,080 incarcerated people have tested positive, along with at least 100 employees, with the number growing daily. News outlets all cited different numbers of total recorded infections — all of which were different from the state's official report, which said that as of Tuesday afternoon there were 1,082 confirmed cases and zero deaths. However, a local outlet reported last week that a 72-year-old incarcerated man sentenced to the death penalty was found dead in his cell, and had tested positive for coronavirus post-mortem after refusing to be tested while he was alive. The San Quentin cases represent 25% of all COVID-19 infections in the state's prison system, per data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
"We are closely monitoring and quickly responding to positive cases of COVID-19 in state prisons, including at San Quentin," CDCR Press Secretary Dana Simas in a statement to a local outlet. "Additionally, we are working closely with California Correctional Health Care Services ... as well as public health agencies and stakeholders for the safety and security of our incarcerated population, staff, and communities."
A local station reported Tuesday that the San Quentin prison set up triage tents outside the prison and sent at least 40 incarcerated people with more severe cases to local hospitals for treatment. Without the proper means to social distance or isolate infected people, the virus can continue to spread easily in jails. Moreover, prison guards travel to and from the facilities every day, and can potentially act as carriers for the virus.
Experts say that high infection and viral transmission rates were inevitable in all incarceration settings. Jails and prisons are designed to confine individuals in communal settings with little privacy, access to sanitation, or even information about the virus. The measures supported by the Centers for Disease Control for mitigating viral spread, such as frequent hand-washing and maintaining social distancing, are nearly impossible for those who are incarcerated.
There are 35 prisons in the state's prison system. After the onset of coronavirus, state prisons halted family visitation and released those convicted of nonviolent offenses with fewer than 60 days left of their sentence to serve. But even with these adjustments, almost 5,000 incarcerated folks have become infected, with nearly 1,500 of those cases popping up in the last two weeks, most of which are from the San Quentin prison.
Members of the public have been pressuring California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to take action. Adnan Khan, executive director of Re:Store Justice who was formerly incarcerated at San Quentin, told Democracy Now! that Newsom "has been radio silent. He comes on and talks a lot about, you know, COVID in California, and everyone in California will be tested. And he talks a lot about California but refuses to talk about the prison system, as if there aren’t ... 200,000-plus Californians incarcerated here in the state."
Family members and protesters gathered outside the San Quentin prison over the weekend, calling for increased protections, health care providers, and expanding qualifications of eligible release. More protests at the state's capitol building in Sacramento are expected in the coming weeks.