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Public Safety

California Urged To Consider Earlier Release Of Inmates

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

One inmate and five employees in California’s massive prison system have tested positive for coronavirus, leading to increased pressure Monday on corrections officials to begin releasing some of the state’s 123,000 convicts early.

It’s among topics being discussed by a pandemic task force appointed by a federal judge to consider recommendations. U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller of Sacramento wants answers by Friday.

But earlier releases would bring their own complications as the most populous state struggles to contain an outbreak that has killed 35 residents and brought more than 2,000 cases. So far, corrections officials aren’t taking that step.


Attorney Michael Bien, who represents inmates in some of the largest lawsuits affecting the prison system, generally praised officials’ efforts to contain the virus.

But one step is lacking, said Bien and other advocates: creating enough space for inmates to socially distance themselves like the rest of the state’s population, and enough to isolate or quarantine inmates who show symptoms or test positive for the virus, which is generally spread by sneezing or coughing.

“We need to make them a safe place to live and work, and the only way to do that is to bring that population down,” Bien said. “If they don’t, not only will they have unnecessary and avoidable deaths but they’ll have that among correctional officers, clinicians, their families. We need to start immediately to reduce that risk.”

The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state leaders last week asking him to free all medically fragile adults and those over age 60 and all inmates scheduled to be paroled through next year.

Hundreds of inmates already have been released from jails in Los Angeles and San Francisco, while the board overseeing New York City’s jails is urging officials to start early releases. That hard-hit city already has at least 38 infected inmates and the first to test positive in a federal lockup.


In response to whether California prisons will start releasing inmates early, corrections officials said they are “continuously evaluating and implementing proactive measures” and “additional measures will continue to be developed based on the rapidly evolving situation.”

“As far we know they have made no move to reduce their population. If they were going to do something, I think they’d have told us,” said Bien. Federal judges a decade ago already forced California to sharply reduce its inmate population to improve prison conditions.

Members of the judge’s task force corresponded all weekend and have more long-distance meetings planned this week, he said.

The corrections department has suspended visitation, most transfers, and is questioning incoming inmates and employees about whether they have symptoms. Inmates who exhibit symptoms are quarantined, along with those around them.

“I think it’s being managed so far, but how long it can be I don’t know,” Bien said, adding that “the fact is there isn’t room to do quarantine and isolation once the virus breaks out inside.”

There are plenty of options, he said, including freeing infirm and older inmates considered most at risk for virus complications. California prisons currently house about 10,000 inmates age 60 and older, while others of all ages may already qualify for hospice, medical parole or compassionate release.

Another possibility is to free those already set for parole in the next couple of months. They should already have a plan in place for getting housing, a job and other support.

“We don’t want someone on the street who’s going to be a burden on society or be under a bridge somewhere,” Bien said. Instead, inmates could go into some of the hotels or other housing that the state is arranging for the homeless, he suggested.

“Some of the same kind of resources, some of the same kind of places can be mobilized” for inmates, he said. “But this is a population where they haven’t acted yet. We need for them to act.”

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