North Bay lawmakers criticize ’tragic errors’ that led to San Quentin COVID-19 outbreak

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Critical errors by state officials led to a C0VID-19 outbreak at San Quentin State Prison, where a dozen convicts have died and nearly a third are infected, including seven inmates now being cared for by outside hospitals, a North Bay lawmaker and Marin County health officer said.

The outbreak, which has impacted local care, stems from the busing of 121 inmates from the COVID-overrun California Institution for Men at Chino, who arrived May 30 at the 168-year-old prison in Marin County, which at the time had no cases of coronavirus infection.

Since then, more than 2,000 San Quentin inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and 1,118 of those men were still in custody Friday in a prison population of 3,362 inmates.

Half of the 12 men who have died were convicted murderers on death row.

Almost as many inmates, 901, had the virus but no longer test positive and 40 have been released while infected because the prison system cannot hold anyone past their release date regardless of their health condition.

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, and Marin County’s health officer, Dr. Matthew Willis, said the prison transfer was ill-conceived, and Gov. Gavin Newsom joined the critics last week, saying the Chino inmates “should not have been transferred.”

Willis called the prison outbreak “a tragic event for Marin.” The county has 29 hospitalized COVID patients, including 22 from the community and seven inmates — six of them in intensive care.

The county has 30 licensed intensive care beds, with 13 of them occupied.

Overall, Marin County has recorded 2,015 coronavirus infections, with 1,362 people recovered, 85 hospitalized and 29 deaths.

By comparison, Sonoma County has experienced a similar number of cases (2,027) with fewer people recovered (976), more hospitalizations (106) and fewer deaths (19).

Willis said he knew of one inmate who had been hospitalized in Sonoma County.

Levine, whose district includes San Quentin and southern Sonoma County, called the outbreak “the worst prison health screw-up in state history.”

The first of several “tragic errors,” Levine said, was selecting the antiquated prison on the shore of San Pablo Bay, the oldest of California’s correctional facilities, as a destination for inmates from the disease-ridden Chino facility.

San Quentin’s total of 2,069 COVID-19 cases accounts for nearly one-third of 6,823 cases throughout the state prison system of 35 institutions.

Calling the outbreak a “top priority” for his administration, the governor said he wanted San Quentin’s inmate count reduced to a little more than 3,000.

A coalition of prison reform groups said the population should be reduced to about 1,500 to cope with the pandemic in a place where men live in close confinement, said Jessica Brand, a criminal justice expert and Harvard Law School graduate with the Wren Collective.

The governor intends to release about 8,000 inmates from state prisons by the end of August to combat the infection, but Brand said a 6% reduction of the population “falls woefully short” of what’s needed to protect inmate health.

At the outset of the transfer, prison officials failed to ensure the Chino inmates had been recently tested for COVID-19 and some displayed symptoms on the bus to San Quentin, which had no testing capacity at the time and had to turn to Marin Public Health for assistance, Levine said.

Compounding the errors, the new arrivals were housed on an upper level inside San Quentin with barred doors that elevated the risk of virus transmission to the inmates below, Levine said.

The assemblyman, who has introduced a measure that would abolish the death penalty in California, acknowledged there may be scant public sympathy for the inmates.

“It’s a very challenging issue,” he said.

Sonoma County health officials said Friday they were aware of the state prison system’s interest in community placement of COVID-positive inmates who do not need hospital care but have no place to go. They were unable to give any details or say if any of those placements were eyed for the the county.

In addition to the inmates, 234 San Quentin employees have been infected and 60 have returned to work.

Willis, who survived a severe case of COVID-19, said the state’s overcrowded prisons are a prime target for the infectious virus. “It’s nearly impossible to control,” he said, with so many inmates in a “highly sequestered” setting.

Moving inmates out of the Chino facility made sense, he said, but they needed to be tested within a week of their departure and then isolated from the general population at San Quentin.

“When we learned that had not occurred it was clear to me we were destined for a large outbreak,” Willis said.

Liz Gransee, a spokeswoman for California Correctional Health Services, said in an email that J. Clark Kelso, the federal court appointed receiver in charge of state prison medical care, has stated that inmate transfers, including the one from Chino to San Quentin, took place before the system was fully prepared.

“In essence, the transfer process was opened too early, too quickly and without the necessary precautions in place,” Gransee said.

Changes have been made to make the transfer process safer for inmates and corrections department staff, she said.

Willis noted that San Quentin has set up a 220-bed facility to treat inmate COVID patients in what was a prison furniture shop and erected six tents with a capacity to treat 60 inmates isolated from the general population.

“I’m hoping there are some lessons learned here,” Willis said. “This response is late, but it is progress.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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