A COVID-19 outbreak that began about two weeks ago at San Quentin State Prison has now infected 219 inmates, and it sounds as though it was completely preventable.
The latest daily tally from the CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) shows a 476-percent uptick from the middle of last week. And it's 11-percent rise from Sunday, when Marin County reported 197 cases at the prison.
As SFist reported last week, the outbreak can be traced directly to the day in late May when the CDCR relocated 121 inmates from the California Institution for Men in Chino — better known as just "Chino." An earlier outbreak at Chino has infected 508 inmates to date, and 16 men have died from COVID-19.
The relocated inmates were all moved into a unit at San Quentin known as Badger, and as the Chronicle reports, the men were put in cells around the upper tiers of the unit. One inmate in the unit who has now tested positive, Jesse Marez, explains to the paper that none of the cells have doors on them — it's an older-style prison with just bars — and whatever those new inmates were exhaling was just falling down onto the lower tiers. "We breathe the same air,” he says. “We use the same showers."
The CDCR ostensibly moved the 121 men to prevent them from getting infected with the coronavirus, however by some error of thinking — or bureaucracy — most of the inmates allegedly hadn't been tested for the virus before they were moved. As the Chronicle reports, some hadn't been tested for as long as a month before the move.
30 staff members at San Quentin have also been infected, and some of those cases are now being counted in the counties where they live, not in Marin. One of those is a 36-year-old guard named Andrew Aguilar who tested positive after escorting an elderly inmate from Chino who was feeling sick to the medical facility at San Quentin — and Aguilar is now hospitalized in Sonoma County after ending up with a severe case.
The virus is making its way into other units at the prison, potentially leading to an outbreak as big if not bigger than the one at Chino. The unit next to Badger, called Donner, has been placed under medical quarantine after several inmates there have tested positive, and now two more units, Alpine and North Block, are under quarantine as well. Per the Chronicle, one inmate on North Block, which holds 750 inmates, just tested positive on Saturday.
Marin County Assemblyman Marc Levine says the CDCR and the prison initially made false statements suggesting that the Chino inmates had all been tested and had not been mixed with the general population at San Quentin. And state attorneys for Governor Gavin Newsom made a legal filing last week blaming the prison's healthcare provider, California Correctional Health Care Services, for the outbreak.
Thus far, Newsom and the CDCR have denied the need to release the tens of thousands of prisoners that would be necessary to prevent the spread of the virus in the state's prisons. The only compromise measure Newsom has made is to allow inmates out of prison if they are within six months of their already scheduled release date.
A total of 1,906 inmates have tested positive in California thus far, but the vast majority of cases (just over 1,600) are listed as "resolved." There have been a total 19 deaths from COVID-19 among inmates, with 16 of those coming from the Chino outbreak.
As Marez's wife tells the Chronicle, "I’m really frustrated and scared for my husband. Just because he’s an inmate doesn’t mean he has to die from COVID-19. He shouldn’t have even been exposed in the first place."
Photo: Marin Visitors Bureau