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San Diego’s Donovan Prison Has One Of Highest COVID-19 Death Rates In State

The entrance to the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego Cou...

Photo by Angela Carone

Above: The entrance to the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County is pictured in this undated photo.

At least 15 inmates at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa died from COVID-19 in the past month, giving it one of the highest death rates among prisons across the state.

The spike in deaths can be traced back to a December outbreak.

Listen to this story by Katy Stegall.

On Dec. 4, COVID-19 cases at Donovan jumped to 196, according to records from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. After two weeks, cases had more than tripled, with a peak of 712 active cases on Dec. 21, the records show. Because COVID-19 deaths usually follow four weeks after infections, the prison is now likely seeing a peak in deaths.

Donovan has the fourth-highest death rate among prisons statewide, after CA Institution for Men in Chino, San Quentin State Prison and Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, the records show. All told, 184 state prison inmates have succumbed to the virus.

RELATED: COVID-19 Cases Spike At San Diego County Jails And Detention Centers

Officials from the state’s corrections department refused an interview request, but in an emailed statement a spokeswoman said Donovan officials sprung to action and quickly curbed what could have been a much larger outbreak.

“Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility immediately responded to an increase in positive COVID-19 cases at the facility with coordinated efforts to increase the frequency of testing, conduct contact tracing and implement isolation and quarantine measures to mitigate spread of COVID-19,” wrote spokeswoman Dana Simas.

Simas also said the outbreak has ebbed in recent weeks and there are now only 36 active cases. But family members of inmates say the prison still isn't providing inmates with proper care.

Inmates with COVID-19 are sequestered in a gymnasium and have had to rely on one another for basic help because medical care and proper treatment has become increasingly hard to access, said Maria Casillas, co-founder of criminal justice non-profit Pride in Truth and wife of a Donovan inmate.

“The guards were turning their back on them, they were not helping them,” she said. “If one of them was too sick to get up and eat ... another guy would come and help this fella eat. If somebody needs to go to the restroom, and they couldn't get up, another fella would come and help them to go to the restroom.”

Reported by Katy Stegall

In response these claims, Simas wrote that Donovan is following state-approved guidelines and isolation techniques that allow for social distancing for both patients and staff. This includes staff and inmates wearing N95 masks and making sure there’s as few transfers of inmates as possible. That means inmates who do not have COVID-19 would not come in contact with staff who are around the positive patients, she said. Simas added that inmates and staff members must be tested twice weekly.

But Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez says her office has reports from family members who allege the prison isn’t being as safe as possible.

“We have heard of a lack of basic PPE like hand sanitizer and that inmates fear retaliation, including solitary confinement, for speaking out about these safety issues,” Gonzalez’s office wrote in a statement to KPBS. “The facility's handling of COVID-19 outbreaks affects the level of spread and safety of the entire surrounding community.”

Her office has been in touch with the state corrections department about their concerns.

Like Gonzalez, Casillas said she believes prison outbreaks need to be a community health concern. She said staff members and inmates should be vaccinated and properly cared for, and that the devastation of mass incarceration reaches beyond prison walls.

“At the end of the day, I still have to bring my loved one home, my friend home, an individual has to come out, and we still have to bury them,” Casillas said. “We still have to pay the cost. Folks that don't believe incarcerated people should get the vaccination ... should understand that this will impact them and their families as well because the communities are connected to this mass incarceration problem.”

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