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Roundtable: Questions about COVID outbreak at Donovan remain

 November 19, 2021 at 1:41 PM PST

Speaker 1: (00:01)

This week on round table questions surrounding the departure of the ward, that Donovan state prison who was in charge during a deadly COVID outbreak. San Diego county has its sights set on carbon neutrality and can the food we eat be part of our collective response to climate change. I'm Matt Hoffman and the KPBS round tables starts. Now.

Speaker 2: (00:21)


Speaker 1: (00:31)

Welcome to our discussion of the week's top stories. I'm Matt Hoffman. And joining me on this remote edition of the KPBS round table are I knew source reporters Sophia, and that he has Pascoe KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson and Kelly bone with San Diego eater. There's a new warden at the Richard J. Donovan state prison in Otay Mesa, but questions still persist about the former leader of the California prison, who was in charge when COVID-19 cases and deaths were spiking. And I knew source investigation about the former warden also found that he made personnel decisions during his tenure that provoked internal or views and calls for reform. Joining me to discuss this story is I knew source reporters, Sophia. He has Pascoe. Hey Sophia. Hi. Thanks for having me. Thanks for being here. Okay. So tell us a little bit about the former warden at Donovan. How, and when did he come to lead the prison?

Speaker 3: (01:23)

Former warden Marcus Pollard had been working for the state corrections department for nearly two and a half decades. When he became acting warden at Donovan, he had served lower level positions at other state prisons, um, around the state at the time that he was promoted to acting warden. Um, and the, after he served about a year as acting warden, he was appointed as official warden of the state prison in November.

Speaker 1: (01:48)

Yeah. So warden Marcus Pollard, he was in charge of more than 3000 inmates and over 1500 staff members in your story, you write about allegations that he was not able to control a deadly COVID outbreak there. What does your reporting find?

Speaker 3: (02:02)

Yeah, so in the winter months in December and January of 20, 20 and early 2021, there was a huge outbreak at Donovan. There were outbreaks at the time around the state in prisons and both just in general. So, um, a lot of the state was having a really hard time dealing with code outbreaks, but Donovan had one of the worst in the end, they tallied 18 COVID-19 deaths over the course of the pandemic. That's the fifth highest among state prisons. They had nearly 600 COVID-19 infections among inmates at one point, and they also have a medically vulnerable population. So it was really difficult for the prison to get a grip on things. There were allegations that staff weren't masking up all the time. The state corrections department did admit at one point that, you know, software so overwhelmed with the outbreak that they weren't isolating. COVID-19 positive inmates from those who were not covenanting positive. So there were a lot of things that may have gone wrong during the management of this huge outbreak that happened.

Speaker 1: (02:59)

You mentioned that it was hard to get a grip on things there. Do we know what

Speaker 3: (03:02)

Led to the prolonged and deadly outbreaks? Well, we can't say exactly for sure. You know, we, we, like I mentioned before, there are allegations that some staff weren't wearing masks, there were allegations that they weren't isolating COVID-19 positive inmates. And again, this is a medical facility prison, about a fourth of the inmates. There have disabilities, which makes them more vulnerable to diseases like COVID-19. So those probably all played a factor in making this outbreak. One of the deadliest in California prisons,

Speaker 1: (03:34)

There's also been allegations of a lack of communication between Pollard and families of inmates. There, you described one case where an inmates relatives didn't know that their loved one had died of COVID until a month after their death. Were you able to talk with Pollard to have them address some of these allegations?

Speaker 3: (03:49)

Yeah. So our reporting from earlier this year found that the families of inmates were often left in the dark for up to weeks at a time after their loved ones had passed away. We weren't able to speak with Pollard. He did not respond to our requests for common about this story or previous ones. So, you know, we don't, we don't know by that communication didn't happen. The corrections department has said that it has informed families when appropriate in a timely manner, but, uh, you know, some of those families had said different. So we really can't say, you know, what happened there, besides that, uh, we know that some families say that they weren't notified when they should have

Speaker 1: (04:27)

You also write about a disciplinary decision that Pollard reversed right at the beginning of his tenure there, can you tell us about that situation?

Speaker 3: (04:34)

Right. So, uh, that was just weeks after Pollard had came into the post as acting warden in August, 2019, right before he had been put into that post, a correctional officer had been accused of punching his girlfriend in the face and severing her thumb in a car door during a fight Pollard during his term, decided to walk back a previous warden's decision to terminate the officer. After there was a disciplinary hearing where the officer made a defense and, uh, defended himself against the allegations, the officer was criminally charged, but the district attorney's office eventually dropped the charges against the officer. That's apparently because the girlfriend, uh, recanted and said that she no longer remembered how she sustained her injuries, um, and Pollard in higher level corrections department officials maintain that it can inconsistencies in the girlfriends report about what happened. Ultimately led them to dismiss the disciplinary action against the officer.

Speaker 1: (05:35)

Um, now this was controversial. Why was Pollard's decision criticized publicly by the office of inspector general?

Speaker 3: (05:42)

So the office of inspector general found that there was enough evidence to hold disciplinary action against the officer. Um, the standard for disciplinary action is a preponderance of evidence, which essentially means that the department must find it more likely than not that the officer committed the, um, allegations and questions. So while the office of inspector general found that there was enough evidence to discipline this officer and ultimately dismiss him Pollard and higher level officials at the department found that there wasn't enough evidence to do so. And that's ultimately because they found inconsistencies and the girlfriend's stories about what happened that night.

Speaker 1: (06:21)

You write that that officer still works at the prison now. And, and so while Pollard would not speak with you about these findings, he did write a letter of resignation where he noted that leading the facility has been extremely challenging. He also wrote that he was dedicated to changing the public perception, relating to inmates who have sued the facility. What is he referring to there?

Speaker 3: (06:42)

Right. So, you know, he was very short in his letter of resignation. We can't be exactly sure. Um, about what exactly he was referring to when he said extremely challenging, but over the course of his two years as warden, there were significant challenges. And one of them was this, um, litigation that has been going on for decades. Um, alleging that disabled inmates across prisons in California have had their rights abused since the 1990s, um, that's called, uh, that case is called Armstrong beat Newsome. And he referenced that specifically in his letter of resignation. Um, his term has been defined by this court order that was handed down as part of the, uh, litigation that mandated a long list of reforms at Donovan specifically, um, that have been in some controversy over the past two years.

Speaker 1: (07:37)

And that inspector general report that we mentioned earlier found that top prison officials have a tendency to give quote undue credence to its officers. And you also mentioned that court records point to a culture of retaliation among correction staff. And you write in your story that there's a new ward in there now, is there any sign that things are changing?

Speaker 3: (07:55)

Yeah, so the, the new board and took over and the beginning of October, I think it will take some time to really know how that warden will take to carrying out, um, some of the issues that holler left behind. I think, you know, there, there's still a lot of reforms that have to be carried out at the prison that the new warden will take over. Um, we'll definitely be keeping an eye out for any word from inmates at Donovan or families of those at Donovan who will really be some of the first to know how this new board in, um, maybe changing things or whether things are staying the same.

Speaker 1: (08:30)

I've been speaking with a new source for Porter, Sophia Mahias Pascoe. Thanks so much for your time. Sophia and I, new source is an independent nonprofit partner of KPBS. The state of California is looking to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045. And in San Diego county officials are looking to take dramatic steps to meet that goal locally. The idea here is to only release as much carbon in the air that can be absorbed, but the transition process is not an easy one. According to UC San Diego, professor of economics, Gordon McCord,

Speaker 4: (09:03)

Re-imagining our energy system and our transportation system, and how we think about changing land use at a pretty fundamental level and doing it very, very well.

Speaker 1: (09:13)

Joining us to dive into the county's plan for a net zero carbon future is KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson. Great to have you here, Eric. My pleasure. Okay, so let's dive into it. First of all, what is carbon neutrality and why are we seeing this coming up at the county level?

Speaker 5: (09:29)

Well, carbon neutrality is exactly what you said. It's a balancing the amount of carbon that's released in a region by technologies or by projects that can absorb carbon so that you're not adding to the carbon problem. And why are they doing it while the state is mandating this for all municipalities in the state of California by 2045, they want every state to be a net carbon, zero state wars or a net carbon zero area, because that means that they're not contributing to the climate warming problem that we're already dealing

Speaker 1: (10:04)

With. So it sounds like there's just a lot of carbon out there. Eric, what are some of the projects that help remove it?

Speaker 5: (10:11)

Well, it doesn't necessarily have to be a project, but we know that there are certain natural ways. For example, that carbon is taken out of the air. Wetlands can absorb carbon forests, can absorb carbon, uh, making sure that those two habitats are not only prominent, but preserved are a couple of ways that the county can reduce the amount of carbon put into the air by balancing it with things that take carbon out of the air,

Speaker 1: (10:36)

The report that county staff and researchers locally and from around the country have been looking at how to transition to net zero. What did they say needs to be done or has to happen to get there?

Speaker 5: (10:46)

Well, they said that we fundamentally have to change the way we get around the way we decide how to use land for housing and, and other projects and the energy system that we currently rely on. We need to basically, uh, electrify much of what we're currently doing. That means not having natural gas, power plants to generate electricity. That means having lots of cars on the road that are electric cars and not cars that run on fossil fuels. And that's one thing that really has been kind of a tension point in these discussions, uh, where a car has fit in all into all of this, uh, at a meeting this week, Jim Desmond county supervisor from the north county kind of spoke out about how cars have become sort of the bad guy, because it's the low hanging fruit. Here's what he had to say.

Speaker 6: (11:41)

I don't believe cars are the problem. Cars are not the problem. Individual vehicles are not the problem. See emissions, the emissions are the problems. And I think we need to move towards incentives for cleaner hydrogen, electric vehicles, whatever, you know, for tractors, trucks, all equipment.

Speaker 5: (11:57)

And he also said that, you know, uh, we have a housing shortage that we have to deal with. This was another point that he made in the supervisors meeting. We have a housing shortage and that may necessitate building housing developments that are outside of the current urban areas because he says infill is very expensive, but environmentalist kind of fire back and say, look, if you build outside of the existing urban areas, what you're doing is creating the need to drive. And if you create the need to drive, that releases carbon into the atmosphere. So, uh, it's kind of a tension point there. And so

Speaker 1: (12:29)

We're talking about a lot of electricity, uh, aside from the transportation side of things. What other changes could we see coming?

Speaker 5: (12:36)

Yeah, there are possibly big changes in terms of the way energy produced. And just to give you an idea, uh, the current energy that's produced in the county is primarily natural gas energy. And what this report is talking about is basically shifting that over to renewables, creating all kinds of solar panel arrays, both a utility scale in the Eastern part of the county and rooftop solar in the Western part of the county. And it talks about also adding wind power where that's practical. And, uh, just to give you an idea, the current energy demand for San Diego counties like 17,000 gigahertz of power. And he says, there's the capability in the county to build out enough, renewable energy to generate 55,000. So the capacity is there, but that also means leaving behind a big projects that are currently generating electricity with natural gas.

Speaker 1: (13:37)

You mentioned some solar farms there, some solar panels, is that the idea of where all this electricity is going to come from?

Speaker 5: (13:43)

Yeah. The researcher seemed pretty convinced that there's certainly as the capacity for that. They talked about an interesting concept, by the way, during the meeting, it was a, uh, what do you call it? No regret steps, right? This plan will call for major changes in a relatively short period of time. And he says, some of those changes are things we should be doing anyway. Things that are not super intensive, uh, monetarily like rooftop, solar, we should be encouraging rooftop solar. We should be trying to do things that encourage people to switch from their gasoline powered cars, to electric cars. Those are no regret strategies that we can do now that will help us get toward that net zero carbon goal. And, uh, even if we don't make it, it will be a good thing for the environment.

Speaker 1: (14:30)

Jobs are always a hot topic when it comes to decarbonisation talk where the supervisors briefed on how this could impact the local industries labor.

Speaker 5: (14:38)

Yeah, there were a lot of union members who spoke up and there were concerned about losing jobs as this transition occurs. Uh, Nathan Fletcher said, very pointedly look, we can't focus on changing, uh, the environmental issues without protecting the jobs. He said, that's a priority of the fact, the county is going to look specifically at that issue and they expect to report back in March

Speaker 1: (15:02)

And Eric, how does this plan, this net zero plan play into the climate action plan that the county is working on.

Speaker 5: (15:08)

It kind of works concurrently. The county climate action plan is also a requirement. The state has put into place, uh, what they do there will help reach the goals that they're looking for in this decarbonisation plan. But strictly speaking, they are two separate, uh, planning documents in two separate planning efforts.

Speaker 1: (15:27)

The draft framework for the net zero plan still needs public input. So if someone is listening to this and wants to get involved here, what should they do?

Speaker 5: (15:35)

Well, I think they can reach out to the county. It's one of the things that, uh, uh, the county has had some public input for. Um, they're looking for more specific public input before they come back to the board again in March. So I think if someone wants to look for a place, I would say, go to the county website and look for regional decarbonization and they should be able to find out where they can get that input in.

Speaker 1: (15:58)

And I know there's been over a year of work into this, but it still seems like it's in some of the early stages, but generally Eric, do we know if county planners believe that they can reach this net zero goal by 2045?

Speaker 5: (16:09)

I'm not sure that they're confident that they can reach that goal by the timeline that has been set. But I think all of the members of the board of supervisors recognize that it's imperative that the county start to walk down this road. Climate change is real. We're feeling the effects of climate change. Now that will only be exacerbated as we move forward. And so the urgency will ratchet up one thing about this plan, as opposed to say planning efforts by the San Diego county association of governments SANDAG is that it calls for more drastic action than what SANDAG is calling for in its planning actions. So they want to have all electric vehicles on the road, uh, by 2050, no more gasoline vehicles driving and admitting carbon, um, SANDAG plan only calls, uh, for about a third of all vehicles to be, uh, electrified. So, uh, there is some differences here. It's a daunting goal. No question about that. And I think that the county supervisors are willing to work toward that goal, but whether or not they get there by the deadline, I think will play out over the next couple of decades.

Speaker 1: (17:16)

I've been speaking with KPBS environment, reporter Eric Anderson, and thanks so much for your time, Eric. My

Speaker 5: (17:22)


Speaker 1: (17:24)

Can the food we eat be part of our collective response to climate change. Some restaurants are starting to include carbon counts next to menu items to let diners know just how much environmental impact went into producing their meal. Whether motivation comes from the climate humanitarian or simply nutritional reasons. There's a growing demand for meat alternatives. And some of that can be found in a new market, serving the vegan community in Hillcrest Kelly bone wrote about it for San Diego eater. And she's here with us now. Hey Kelly, hello. So X market is located on fifth avenue. It's less than a block from the Hillcrest sign for those who are familiar with the area, what makes this business unique? And why did you write about it?

Speaker 7: (18:04)

So the concept itself of a vegan convenience store is actually not that unique. Um, we do have another one here in San Diego, which is mission square market over on mission Gorge. But, um, it is a business model that has been growing in popularity over the past decade, I would say, but X market is really the first global player in this field. Uh, they have a strong e-commerce side and they are now developing these standalone markets with a few flagships, uh, across the globe, um, with San Diego being one of the first ones that they're developing. And I would say I wrote about it because, um, there is a really loud interest in vegan food, but there's also a lot of quiet curiosity, uh, among readers who are just kind of interested and curious to kind of tap their feet in to, uh, the vegan market. So it just, it generates a lot of interest.

Speaker 1: (18:59)

Yeah. And you mentioned some of that curiosity and maybe some people listening right now may not know the difference between vegan and vegetarian. What is the difference?

Speaker 7: (19:07)

So a vegetarian is a diet that primarily rejects animal products are there that are the result of like an animal's death, which is mainly meat or as veganism is a ethical lifestyle that strives to cause the least amount of harm to animals. So that is a avoiding animal products such as meat and their byproducts such as eggs and leather and fur, and also products that do cause direct harm to animals, such as, um, home products and cosmetics that have been tested on animals.

Speaker 1: (19:38)

And we know that X market is sort of the flagship brick and mortar for the e-commerce site, plant X, what is plant X? And why is it described as a vegan version of Amazon as you wrote in your story

Speaker 7: (19:49)

That way, because plant X, that is their intention with what they are establishing. Um, they are first and e-commerce site that is like the core of their business. And they also do aim to have a global presence, much like Amazon.

Speaker 1: (20:05)

And we know that plant-based eating is nothing new, but there's definitely a modern way of branding and selling those products as something sleek and cutting edge rather than the same old veggie burgers, tofu and salads. Do you think we're in a new era when it comes to selling and marketing this lifestyle?

Speaker 7: (20:20)

I think we're in a new era of marketing really across all industries, because a lot of what is being sold today is still kind of the same old video burger with a few tweaks. I know that a lot of the marketing presented as this like brand new wildly, uh, inventive product, but, um, a lot of these types of products have been around for a really long time, but we are starting to enter this sort of weird period for people who have been involved in the vegan community for a long time. It's kind of weird that vegan food is starting to become kind of cool. And it has like a really strong popularity now, um, in the younger generations who tend to have a stronger interest in like the environmental state.

Speaker 1: (21:03)

And so you mentioned that sort of weird period that we're in right now. We're also seeing fast food and casual fast chains like burger king, Starbucks, and other major companies dabble in the plant-based options, even Panda express just launched the version of its orange chicken with a product made by beyond meat. What's your take on these lab grown synthetic meats? I mean, do you think that it's helpful in creating a sort of entry point for mainstream consumers?

Speaker 7: (21:26)

Well, first I would say these are tech meets. Um, lab grown meat is still an up-and-coming industry and there's actually a lot of skepticism right now about whether it's actually a scalable manufacturing model, but, um, the meat analogs really do have a long history specifically in Asian cultures. And manufacturing specifically in Taiwan has a long head start ahead of the U S but there's a deeply rooted nostalgia around food. And it's one of the, it's currently one of the most like pervasive narratives in food media. So it, it feels really hard to ignore the emotional ties that people have to their comfort foods, many of which include meat. So, um, in the world of the average American meat is still the center of their meals. And so I'm having these like tech meats, meat analogs, it's an easy mainstream point to make the change and it makes, uh, going, uh, more meatless accessible to a lot more people. Everyday.

Speaker 1: (22:27)

You mentioned lab grown meat there. Is there anything that you find problematic with these alternatives, be it how they're produced or otherwise?

Speaker 7: (22:34)

Well, first I'll say a lot of the, uh, these products do align with my personal basic ethics to, um, you know, not directly harm animals, but, um, I am pretty highly skeptical about for profit tech companies that claim to have the solution to save the world. We usually see that that does not play out well for the regular people. But, um, the biggest issue I have with tech meets is that they really are taking up most of the space in the conversation and they are the first thing people think of. Now, when you mentioned vegan food and it's not even that they are the most popular or the better tasting, which is subjective obviously, but, um, it's that they have the capital to generate their own hype. So you would think that vegans are like chomping away at this food all the time when they are really, really not. So, um, that's one of my main issues with it, but tech meats are, they're also coming from the same kind of monocropping, uh, systems that are still a problem for the environment. So it's not really addressing some of the core issues that we are dealing with. So like these tech meets meat analogs while they do a much smaller carbon footprint, then, uh, say regular animal meats. Both of them are going to be beat by local beans and grains and vegetables who have a much, much smaller footprint, um,

Speaker 1: (23:57)

Agriculture and the methane produced by livestock used to produce meat products comes up regularly in discussions about climate change. Do you think that the conversation on what we eat as it relates to this problem is getting enough attention?

Speaker 7: (24:08)

I think it's getting a lot of attention and it's really been getting attention for decades. The conversation around meat consumption as it relates to the environment was really kicked into the mainstream back when diet for a small planet was written, which is 50 years ago this year. But since then, meat consumption has only risen in the us and the globe. Really. So I would say there's, there's a lot of attention out there, but there's just not a lot of action being taken.

Speaker 1: (24:37)

So we heard about the plant-based orange chicken and some of these other new items that are coming up for those who are thinking about maybe making a change to their diet, how would you recommend going about it?

Speaker 7: (24:46)

I think that the easiest way for selling to start making the changes is to basically let someone else do the cooking for you. So, um, go to a restaurant and order what they're making order the beyond orange chicken, or go to a vegan restaurant and try out their food. Let the professionals who have been, um, cooking and manipulating vegetables for years, decades make the food for you. So you can really see how delicious and tasty it can be.

Speaker 1: (25:13)

I've been talking with Kelly bone, she's a freelance food writer based here in San Diego. You can find her work in San Diego eater and on her website, the vege Thanks so much for your time. Kelly, thank

Speaker 7: (25:24)


Speaker 1: (25:26)

That wraps up this week's edition of the KPBS round table. I'd like to thank my guests. Sophia Mahias Pasco with I new source, Eric Anderson with KPBS news and Kelly bone with San Diego eater. If you missed any part of our show, you can listen anytime on the KPBS round table podcast. I'm Matt Hoffman. Thanks so much for listening and join us next week on the round table.

Speaker 2: (25:49)


Ways To Subscribe
The Richard J. Donovan state prison in Otay Mesa is shown on Dec. 21, 2018.
Megan Wood
The Richard J. Donovan state prison in Otay Mesa is shown on Dec. 21, 2018.
A deeper look into the actions of Donovan state prison's former warden, a new San Diego County plan to reach net-zero emissions, and how the food we eat can impact climate change.

KPBS health reporter Matt Hoffman hosts a discussion on the the departure of the warden at Donovan state prison who was in charge during a deadly COVID outbreak,
San Diego County's plan for a net-zero carbon future, and how plant-based eating could be part of our response to climate change. Guests include: inewsource reporter Sofía Mejías-Pascoe, KPBS environment reporter Erik Anderson, and food writer Kelly Bone.