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As Prisons And Jails In California Battle COVID-19, Some Inmate Deaths Go Uncounted

 January 28, 2021 at 11:42 AM PST

Speaker 1: 00:00 A new I, new source investigation reveals public officials are using inconsistent tracking methods for inmates who've died from COVID-19. The issues have led to some deaths going uncounted. I'm joined by Mary Plummer and investigative reporter at I new stores who covers infrastructure and government accountability stories. Speaker 2: 00:20 Very welcome. Thank you. Thank you, Jade. Great to be here. Speaker 1: 00:23 No COVID cases have been surging. And this story you highlight that there's no clear picture of how that's impacting inmates and staff inside prisons and jails. Why is there no clear picture? Speaker 2: 00:34 Sure. Uh, we found a range of tracking problems. Essentially agencies use different methods to count inmate deaths, uh, and during the pandemic, you know, when accurate data is really crucial for public health and controlling the virus, this issue presents some serious concerns. Um, for one thing we found Southern California counties vary and how they determine whether or not to include inmate deaths in their death totals. Um, San Diego County, for example, only includes San Diego County residents. So for example, if you die at RJ Donovan, which is the lone state prison located in San Diego County, that you have residency elsewhere, say you're a resident of orange County, uh, that death would not be included in San Diego counties totals, not all counties take this approach. Los Angeles County and San Bernardino County, both using methods that capture deaths at the facility is not based on where the person's home addresses, but San Diego County is not alone. We also found problems between County, uh, numbers and numbers in the statewide trackers. There really is a lack of consistency at many levels. Uh, essentially we found if you have a friend or family member who's incarcerated in California, there is no place. You can go to get a reliable, clear picture of how the pandemic is playing out inside incarceration facilities. A lot of the agencies post numbers on their websites, but the data is just not always reliable Speaker 1: 02:02 With all that information unavailable. You decided to look at public records. What did you find? Speaker 2: 02:08 Yes. We found that some inmates who've died of COVID-19 appear uncounted. Uh, we identified three prison inmates who were incarcerated at Chuckwalla Valley state prison in Riverside County. They were transferred into San Diego County for medical care in Oceanside, all three died there. Uh, they died at Tri-City medical center and all three of those inmates do not appear in death lists that we reviewed for San Diego County or for Riverside. So this really raises into question, um, you know, what exactly is going on with some of these inmate deaths and when folks are being transferred out of County for care, are they being counted and are they making it back into death lists that are tracking the scale of the virus, um, across California, Speaker 1: 02:54 I have a sense of how bad this undercount is. Speaker 2: 02:57 You know, we found a handful specific people who went uncounted through our research. I can tell you that it's very hard to uncover these types of mistakes. There's just not a lot of watch dogging of the numbers during the pandemic. So it's really hard to know at this point, the full scale of the problem. We did see mistakes, uh, between death counts at facilities at the County and state level counties told us one number and the state trackers show different numbers. Um, I can tell you that one researcher we spoke with at UCLA who is tracking inmate deaths nationally says she believes numbers coming from officials are dramatic under count. She thinks that the numbers are quite higher than what we're seeing in official report. Speaker 1: 03:39 And what's the consequence of that. What's the consequence of an undercount Speaker 2: 03:43 Sports we interviewed who track these deaths, um, say that it becomes dangerous because people who are managing the disease need to know where to send resources. And if death numbers are not accurate, it can give a false view of the virus. Um, during the pandemic, you know, public officials are looking at where to send resources and if they've got the wrong numbers, um, it can be hard to tell exactly where the hotspots and problems really are. Speaker 1: 04:10 What did you find out about San Diego County when you compared County medical examiner records and death certificates with government lists? Speaker 2: 04:18 So in San Diego County, one of our most notable findings is that a County jail inmate has died of COVID-19. Uh, this is the first, uh, jail death from COVID-19. Uh, we are the first to report this out. The San Diego County Sheriff's department is still investigating it and has not yet announced, uh, this death, uh, from COVID-19 to the public. We confirmed his death through public records and through an interview with his daughter. Uh, his name is Adele Laredo. He was 62 years old. He died at sharp Chula Vista where he was taken after he got sick at George Bailey detention facility, which is one of the County jails. And your listeners may be aware there was quite a serious outbreak there. He was among that outbreak among the inmates who got sick and he lost his life. Uh, at sharp Chula Vista spent time on a ventilator, uh, while he was awaiting trial on drug charges. Speaker 1: 05:14 What about the staff who have worked inside these facilities and the risk of infection they face? Speaker 2: 05:19 Certainly there is a risk for staff, uh, experts we spoke with for the story point out that incarceration facilities are quite interconnected with the rest of the community. You can have asymptomatic people, uh, coming in and out, whether that be visitors or staff, really what it comes down to is, you know, congregate settings, uh, may controlling the virus very difficult and also to keep in mind, you know, jail populations fluctuate frequently, which certainly adds to the challenge of keeping both, uh, inmates and staff safe Speaker 1: 05:53 And have California prisons and jails implemented any safety during this pandemic. Speaker 2: 05:58 It's a challenge, but they certainly have I'm here in San Diego County, they are doing temperature checks for everyone entering the facilities. There are daily temperature checks going on of inmates in custody. Uh, Sheriff's officials also say that they're doing, um, testing for inmates. There's an emphasis on hand-washing and good hygiene. I should add though, that there have also been complaints from inmates and family members of inmates saying that some of these safety measures are not taking place. Uh, here in San Diego County, there have been reports of guards wearing dangling masks and have a lack of hand sanitizer. Speaker 1: 06:34 What is the San Diego County Sheriff's office saying about all this Speaker 2: 06:37 In a U Del Laredos case? Uh, the man who died of COVID-19 that I mentioned earlier, they are awaiting the medical examiners report before they issue a press release on his debt. Uh, they also acknowledge that they have not yet reported his death to the state, uh, and that leaves numbers for San Diego County on the state tracker for jails and accurate, spent a little over two months now since his death and his death has still not been reported. Uh, they do say that they will update numbers as needed once his death is announced. Speaker 1: 07:10 I've been speaking with Mary Plummer and investigative reporter with I new source. She co reported this story with Sophia Mahir has Pascoe. Mary, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you.

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Using public records, inewsource uncovered reporting mistakes and delays in Southern California and at the state level in tracking inmate deaths from COVID-19, including in San Diego County. These issues have led to some deaths going uncounted.
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