One-third of the prisoners in California's San Quentin State Prison have coronavirus

Public health experts feared a prison coronavirus outbreak would be a nightmare scenario. They were right

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published July 6, 2020 5:04PM (EDT)

A view of San Quentin State Prison on June 29, 2020 in San Quentin, California. San Quentin State Prison is continuing to experience an outbreak of coronavirus COVID-19 cases with over 1,000 confirmed cases amongst the staff and inmate population. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A view of San Quentin State Prison on June 29, 2020 in San Quentin, California. San Quentin State Prison is continuing to experience an outbreak of coronavirus COVID-19 cases with over 1,000 confirmed cases amongst the staff and inmate population. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A coronavirus outbreak is spreading through California's San Quentin State Prison, confirming many epidemiologists' worst fears over what might happen if the virus took hold in a tightly confined space like a prison. 

Over the last two weeks, there have been 919 new COVID-19 cases in the infamous prison just north of San Francisco, for a total of 1,388 inmates infected with the coronavirus. That accounts for more than one-third of the prison's population, according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Back at the end of May, no inmates in San Quentin were known to have had the virus. Across the state of California, there are over 5,000 incarcerated persons with active cases of COVID-19.

According to press releases by the CDCR, there may have been five COVID-related deaths since the outbreak. On Saturday, July 4, Dewayne Michael Carey died from suspected COVID-19 related complications, according to a CDCR press release, at an outside hospital. On Friday, the CDCR published a separate press release stating that Scott Thomas Erskine and Manuel Machado Alvarez both died "at outside hospitals from what appear to be complications related to COVID-19." Erskine had been on death row since 2004; Alvarez since 1989. Joseph Sarfino Cordova was found unresponsive in his cell on July 1; his cause of death will be determined by the Marin County Coroner. COVID-19 complications are suspected. Richard Stitely was also found unresponsive in his cell on June 24. 

The CDCR tracker states only three incarcerated individuals have died as of Monday morning.

"Unrestrained COVID-19 infections at San Quentin State Prison is creating the worst prison health catastrophe in state history,"  Assembly member Marc Levine (D. – Marin County) said in a press statement. "Since April, I called upon CDCR and San Quentin leaders to develop a prison specific plan to contain and prevent the spread of COVID-19." 

Levine added in his statement that those calls were "ignored." 

As the situation becomes more dire, organizers, public defenders, inmates and former inmates are demanding that California Governor Gavin Newsom grants releases immediately, that inmates receive free essential hygiene products, free tele-visiting privileges, stop the transfers between prison and more.

"Mass incarceration was an epidemic before the spread of COVID-19 inside prisons; Black and Brown communities have been over-policed and over-incarcerated, and now our loved ones face what could be a death sentence unless Governor Newsom takes the steps needed to immediately decrease the prison population," James King, Ella Baker Center State Campaigner told Salon in an email statement. "Decarceration is not only the best way to stop the outbreaks in San Quentin and other prisons across the country, it is a step toward reforming an unjust and racist system."

KQED reported this morning that over the July 4th holiday weekend employees in  the San Francisco Public Defender's office worked over the weekend to call for the immediate release of 60 of their clients in San Quentin. 

"Our research unit has prepared a habeas petition calling for the superior court to immediately release these individuals… on the basis that it represents a risk to their health and safety,"  Stephen Liebb, a legal assistant in the SF Public Defender's office, told KQED. 

San Quentin was free of the coronavirus, but a transfer started the outbreak. On May 30th, the CDCR transferred 121 incarcerated people to San Quentin State Prison from California Institution for Men in San Bernardino County. At the time of the transfer, the  California Institution for Men had over 500 active COVID-19 cases and 15 COVID-related deaths. Prior to being transferred, the incarcerated individuals tested negative. However, many of the tests were conducted two to three weeks prior to the transfer. 

Last week, incarcerated individuals initiated a hunger strike to protest dismal conditions. In a video published by NBC News, an anonymous prisoner explains that life inside the prison during a widespread COVID-19 outbreak does not include social distancing, access to clean and safe food services, and showers happen every three to four days. The video also states that the inmates received hand sanitizer once, three months ago, and that officers in the prison have "bragged about getting a 2 week paid vacation if they get sick." There is also a lack of information being communicated to inmates, and infected inmates are reportedly being sent to solitary confinement if they test positive. 

UCSF Doctor Peter Chin-Hong described the San Quentin outbreak to NBC News as the "Chernobyl of COVID."

"Not all of the prisoners have been tested, they ran out of tests at San Quentin," Dr. Chin-Hong told NBC News. "50% of the nurses have called in sick. People are scared there."

In mid-June, more UCSF doctors along with Berkeley Public Health officials, released an urgent memo suggesting guidance on immediate actions that needed to be taken as the outbreak was escalating. 

"Failure to meet these urgent needs will have dire implications for the health of people incarcerated at San Quentin, custody, staff, and the healthcare capacity of Bay Area hospitals," the health experts wrote. 

San Quentin is part of an alarming national trend as COVID-19 cases rise across the country among incarcerated individuals. 

"A global pandemic creates a level of urgency that people should not be kept in prison one day longer than necessary," Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, told Time magazine. "Many of those people pose absolutely no threat to public safety and their liberty would have been restored anyway this year.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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California Coronavirus Covid-19 Prison