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California Prisons Are COVID Hotbeds Despite Billions Spent On Inmate Health

 July 1, 2020 at 11:35 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 Governor Gavin Newsome expanded restrictions on some of the reopened areas of the state today during his daily COVID-19 update, he says, state beach parking lots will be closed this weekend in an effort to cut down on the number of beach goers, but the beaches themselves will remain open. Other restrictions announced by the governor applied to the 19 counties on the state's COVID-19 watch list. Imperial and Los Angeles counties are on that watch list. But San Diego County is not in those affected counties, indoor operations of restaurants, movies, and museums will be prohibited for at least three weeks. Speaker 2: 00:39 We want to again, remind each and every one of you and that if we want to be independent from COVID-19, uh, we have to be much more vigilant in terms of maintaining our physical distancing from others and be much more vigilant as it relates to the prospects of being in situations where, uh, we are transmitting COVID-19. Speaker 1: 01:05 The governor also announced the formation of a new strike team made up of agencies overseeing different industries to enforce COVID-19 restrictions and safety guidelines. Meanwhile, a sad truth is emerging in the coronavirus pandemic. It appears that many of the worst predictions are coming true. Experts said the virus could spike significantly when stay at home orders were lifted at it has officials feared. Many people would disregard safety measures like masks and social distancing. And they did now predictions about the potential of COVID-19 to run rampant within the California prison population also seems to be coming true. The California Senate standing committee on public safety held a hearing this morning on the spread of the virus in state prisons. Here's a clip from state Senator Mike McGuire, who represents the district where San Quentin is located. Speaker 2: 02:01 I don't say it lightly slightly, but this is a failure of leadership. This crisis is completely avoidable. The base of the basic proactive actions that could have been initiated back in early June. Uh, simply never happened to the level where success could be achieved. Speaker 1: 02:23 Joining me is reporter Dan Morain who's recent article called California prisons are COVID hotbeds, despite billion spent on inmate health and it was published by California health line. And Dan, welcome to the program. Thank you for having me. Did you learn anything today from listening to the Senate? Hearing Speaker 3: 02:41 The hearing will go on much of the day, so more will be learned as it, as it progresses. Um, what, what we know is that this isn't the senators, particularly the Democrats, um, on this committee and of course, Sacramento is dominated by Democrats are really angry. Um, central said that they started warning in April about the problem that, that they saw coming and that the state department of corrections and rehabilitation just did not heed those warnings. Speaker 1: 03:17 And okay. So where are we now about how many California prisoners have contracted COVID-19 and how does that percentage compare what the state's overall infection rate Speaker 3: 03:28 On March 25th? There was one recorded COVID-19 case today, July 1st they're 4,971 COVID-19 cases that have been identified. Now, keep in mind, not every prisoner has been tested, but it's 4,900 out of a population of about 114,000. So we're talking about a rate that is well over 40 per, per thousand and the general population. The latest number is 43 per 1000 inmates. Um, statewide the number is, is about 4.7% per 1000 people. So it's, you know, it's, it's a huge, big problem. Speaker 1: 04:18 I'd have many prisoners and members of prison staff die. Speaker 3: 04:22 Uh, well, right now the, the count of prisoners is 2022 deaths, which is far, far, fewer than have died. And in several other States, Texas of Ohio, but you know, this is a disease that takes a while for people to succumb. So I think that 22 will be a small number a month from now. Um, and there have been two staffers who have died one correctional officer and another worker. Speaker 1: 04:49 And, you know, we may think we know why, but can you remind us specifically why prisons are such dangerous places for the transmission of infectious diseases? Speaker 3: 05:00 Well, prisons are crowded places in California. State prisons have have 114,000 inmates right now, 34 prisons, and many of them live live in dormitories. They're double bunked and dormitory. So there's no way to socially distance yourself in a dormitory. Uh, many others live in cells that are, uh, two persons per cell, and these are tiny, tiny cells or 80 square feet or 60 square feet, depending on the prison. Uh, very few of them are in single cells. Uh, and those are the real heavyweights, the people who are the most dangerous to others and people on death row, uh, live one person per cell. Um, so there's, it's very difficult to socially distance, especially in the older presence like San Quinn, um, which are, uh, built in first built in the 19th century. Uh, so it, it just, uh, it, it is just spreading. Um, I, and I think they're a bit of at a loss. How does stop it? They're certainly trying to stop it at San Quentin, but it's a big problem there. Speaker 1: 06:07 Now. It seems like the effort to remove at risk prisoners from one facility backfired and is now responsible for the system wide COVID outbreak. Can you explain what happened? Speaker 3: 06:20 The state prison in Chino is one of the older prisons and it, it had a huge flare up. It was the first that really experienced a bad, bad outbreak. The California department of corrections and rehabilitation decided that one way to solve this problem was to send some inmates who they thought were negative, who did not have, um, uh, COVID. They thought that the way to deal with this was to send them to San Quentin state prison in Marin County, 400 miles away, and to Corcoran state prison in the central Valley, South of Fresno, what happened was some of those inmates were positive. And, uh, lo and behold, there are now huge outbreaks at San Quentin and at Corcoran, Speaker 1: 07:09 The Donovan correction facility is the closest state prison to San Diego. What's the situation there Speaker 3: 07:15 Last count. There had only been one inmate at Donovan who had tested positive for COVID and 10 staffers. Most of those staffers have return to work. So the reality is that the prison system has been able to contain this, uh, to, uh, to some prisons. And, uh, there are 16 prisons, um, that 16 out of the 34 prisons where they haven't detected, uh, coronavirus among inmates and then eight, like Donovan, which are in single digits Speaker 1: 07:49 Now. And in addition to moving prisoners from one facility to another, the state has been allowing early release of thousands of prisoners who have less than six months to serve. What's the rationale behind that? Speaker 3: 08:01 Well, these are people who are going to be released anyway. They are, uh, people who were serving, uh, who had six months or, or less to serve on their sentence. And so in, uh, April the state just sped up their release. They're doing the same thing again. Now there's another effort to release people who have fewer than six months. Um, there are caveats, they can't have had, uh, been convicted of violent or serious crimes or sex crimes or domestic violence. And they have to have a housing plan. One of the concerns of local officials is that as the state prisons and, and especially County jails release inmates to, uh, basically allow for social distancing in these facilities that, that worsens the homeless problem, it certainly is the case of the Sacramento area where homelessness has really spiked. Now the prison Speaker 1: 08:56 System in California really has been plagued with health care delivery problems for years. And as you write in the article, the state now annually spends more on inmate health care than other big States spend on their entire prison systems. So what have you been able to discern are the reasons the prisons haven't been more successful in controlling the spread of COVID? Speaker 3: 09:20 Well, if you just step back, I mean, it is just extraordinary. California has said lawsuits going back to the year, 1990 over its delivery of mental health care to inmates. There are cases that date back to the middle 1990s, over health care delivery, um, and the U S Supreme court finally in 2011, uh, concluded the California healthcare delivery of mental health care delivery delivery violated the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. So California has been under court orders for more than a decade. And the Supreme court ruling of of nine years ago made clear that the state really had to fix its system and it has tried, and it certainly has spent a ton of money, uh, three point $6 billion in the coming year as is what the state intends to spend on healthcare and mental healthcare in the prisons, 3.6 billion. That's what Texas spends for its entire prison system. Speaker 3: 10:26 You know, there's a whole staff of people who, who monitor healthcare delivery. Um, uh, the, the state prison system is hired psychiatrists and physicians to improve delivery. Um, and yet here we are, it just shows that prisons in general, it's not just California businesses prisons all around the country and certainly in the federal Bureau of prisons, that, that they are, uh, not unlike nursing homes. They're really hard to keep people safe. Even if you have no sympathy for inmates, it's a community problem. It's a community issue. What happens, you know, prisons prisons are built to keep people in not viruses. And so the virus is going to jump outside prison walls and into the community. And certainly in Marin County, Marin County is feeling, which is where San Quentin is feeling the pressure, uh, on its ICU beds. We're it only has 25 beds, ICU beds, and eight of them are taken up by, uh, inmates right now. Um, and then of course staff come and go and they're running the risk. They're going home to their family, families and communities, and they're running the risk of spreading it. So, uh, it's not just a corrections issue. It's a public safety issue of public health issue. Speaker 1: 11:46 I've been speaking with a reporter, Dan Morain, his article, California prisons are COVID hotbeds. Despite billions spent on inmate health was published by California health line. And Dan, thank you so much. Speaker 3: 11:58 Well, thank you.

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California prisons have emerged as raging COVID-19 hot spots, even as the state annually spends more on inmate health care than other big states spend on their entire prison systems.
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