California’s San Quentin State Prison is seeing an explosion of coronavirus cases after a botched transfer from another facility, impacting hundreds of incarcerated residents and scores of correctional officers and staff in a potential public-health threat to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Some 832 people incarcerated at San Quentin tested positive for COVID-19 as of 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. That means more than 1 in 5 of the prison’s total population of 3,507 has been infected. State data also show that 89 staff members at San Quentin have COVID-19. Officials are now conducting mass testing at San Quentin on the incarcerated population; testing of all staff has been completed.
“As of June 28, San Quentin has completed 1,198 tests, with a testing rate of 485 per 1,000 which is more than five times the state and national testing rates,” said Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the CDCR, in an email Sunday. The agency has been working with the California Department of Public Health to develop a comprehensive staff-testing plan that involves ongoing testing of all staff at all institutions, she said.
Prisons are a prime example of the type of “congregate” environments where COVID-19 can spread rapidly. Social distancing is impossible in small cells with bunkmates, not to mention in shared restrooms, showers and common areas.
Meanwhile, more than 600 people attended a virtual town hall via Zoom and Facebook Live on Saturday to discuss the growing crisis. The town hall, led by three formerly incarcerated people who served time at San Quentin, urged Governor Gavin Newsom to reduce the prison population via early or earned release and stop the practice of transfers.
“COVID does not contain itself within prison walls,” Adnan Khan, the co-founder and executive director of Re:Store Justice, which was founded in 2017 inside San Quentin, said during the town hall.
Built in 1852, San Quentin is California’s oldest correctional facility. The walled prison is made up of four large cell blocks and includes the state’s Death Row.
San Quentin had zero known COVID-19 cases through May, but infections jumped after state prison officials transferred 121 people from the California Institution for Men in Chino on May 30. The practice of transferring inmates from one facility to another within the state has been widely condemned for spreading the virus.
Plans to transfer additional people from San Quentin to another prison in Southern California have been halted after additional testing for COVID-19 among those slated for transfer revealed two positive cases, the department said on its website Saturday.
Statewide, there were 2,112 incarcerated persons with active cases of COVID-19 and 391 active cases among correctional employees as of Saturday. At least 21 incarcerated people have died.
San Quentin is located across the bay from San Francisco in Marin County, where prices of single family homes can top $1 million but economic disparity is widespread.
Latinos make up just 16% of the county’s population but account for 75% of its confirmed coronavirus cases. The county’s total cumulative case and hospitalization counts don’t include the San Quentin State prison cases. At least four San Quentin inmates have been treated at local Marin County hospitals, according to the county.
California was the first to enact a statewide stay-at-home order in mid-March and has been slow to reopen. On Sunday, the governor ordered bars in seven counties, including Fresno, Imperial and Los Angeles, to close again amid an uptick in cases and hospitalizations.
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