A hastily executed transfer of nearly 200 people in California’s prison system set off a public health disaster that endangered the lives of thousands of prisoners and staff and led to dozens of deaths, according to a new report from the state’s office of the inspector general (OIG).
The report published on Monday, the third in a series examining the Covid-19 catastrophe in California state prisons, details the circumstances of a May 2020 transfer of 189 people from the California Institute for Men (CIM) in Chino, California, to San Quentin state prison in the Bay Area and Corcoran state prison in the Central Valley.
CIM saw one of the first outbreaks in the California prison system, and to slow Covid-19’s spread inside, California department of corrections and rehabilitation (CDCR) and California correctional health care services (CCHCS) officials resolved to transfer people at CIM who were at risk of severe illness and death to prisons that were Covid-free. Before the transfer, San Quentin had reported no positive cases of Covid-19 and Corcoran had just one.
But within a month of the transfer, Corcoran reported almost 130 infections and San Quentin reached nearly 1,200 cases, according to CDCR’s Covid-19 tracking website. Cases at San Quentin continued to rise in the following months, with infections rising to 2,100. At least 28 people died.
Activists, officials and the families of incarcerated people quickly pointed to the transfers as a major policy failure and lamented that the state was using them as a substitute for making space by releasing the ageing and infirm.
Now, seven months later, the office of the inspector general has concluded that officials ignored concerns from healthcare staff at CIM before the transfer.
Two days before the transfers began, a supervising nurse at the facility, concerned about pressure from prison executives to fill seats on buses bound for the northern California prisons, emailed nursing leadership and asked: “What about patient safety? What about Covid precautions?”, according to the report.
The next day, a CIM manager sent another email to CDCR management expressing surprise and concern about the decision to conduct transfers, the report says. “It’s difficult to get things right when we’re in a rush,” the manager wrote.
Following the transfers, prison leadership at San Quentin and Corcoran failed to properly quarantine and test the transferees, the investigators concluded, and staff failed to conduct thorough contact tracing and limit staff movements.
Two transferees who were exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms upon arrival at San Quentin were housed alongside hundreds of others on cell blocks with open cells that allowed air to flow within the prison, the report says, adding that outbreaks were exacerbated by consistent movement of staff from building to building.
Corcoran avoided an outbreak of the scale of San Quentin’s, the report noted, because the institution is newer, better ventilated, and has solid doors that prevent air and droplets from traveling freely through cell tiers.
CCHCS and CDCR officials say they disagree with some of the inspector general’s “conclusions and interpretations”, according to a statement sent to the OIG. The office says it is standing behind the report.
Currently 2,018 incarcerated people in California state prison are infected with Covid-19. Since the pandemic, 47,502 people – more than half of the current state prison population – have tested positive and 195 have died from complications.