Coronavirus: Judges Evaluate Massive Release of Californian Detainees


As parole dates are accelerated and inmates tear off shirts and socks to make masks, federal judges wonder if California needs to take bigger and more drastic measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in its teeming prisons.

“There are injuries and hopelessness” among inmates living in overcrowded dormitories at risk of the coronavirus, said Sarah Norman of the Prison Law Office during an emergency hearing Thursday before three federal judges.

The remedies proposed by detainee lawyers range from mass releases to the use of empty buildings by the state and the acquisition of property to temporarily house detainees – similar to COVID-19 measures to house detainees cruise ship passengers and the homeless.

Attorneys for Governor Gavin Newsom argue that federal intervention is unwarranted and that massive prison releases could endanger the public by overloading already struggling community hospitals.

“We should have the opportunity to try to distance ourselves from society,” said Paul Mello, a private lawyer representing the governor’s office. “We can move people to gymnasiums… We can move people to vacant facilities. We should have the opportunity to do these things. “

Mello said there is no constitutional requirement for a six-foot social distance within the prison. Nor did he know if the state intended to achieve this goal.

Sacramento-based US district judge Kimberly Mueller has urged California’s lawyer to question whether detainees should have the same chance of social distancing as the rest of the population on the grounds of “decency.” He did not answer.

But Mello said it would be “red herring” to raise fears of an increase in crime and that recidivism was not among the state’s objections to prison releases.

Federal judges have not specified when they will rule on the emergency request made by lawyers representing detainees.

California has already terminated visitation and volunteer programs, suspended the admission of some 3,000 new inmates expected in county jails, and has started screening workers as they enter the jails. As a result of these measures, the spread of the coronavirus has been somewhat limited and more than half of the 35 state prisons have not reported any cases of COVID-19.

As of April 2, the correctional service had reported infections in 33 prison officers and eight inmates in 16 prisons. However, detainee screening is uneven, with only eight detainees screened in a Chino prison despite the infection of 11 prison workers.

California attorneys say housing, programming and benefits plans have already started for the release of 3,500 inmates at the start of the next two months, reducing the impact on home communities and offices county probation.

Court-appointed prison medical chief J. Clark Kelso told prison administrators last week that he supported “an immediate and substantial reduction” in the prison population, but that he was focusing on inmates who have homes and families to return to. .

For those who do not, writes Kelso, “early release is unlikely to improve the inmates’ environment from a health care perspective and may increase the risk of COVID-19 in the release community. “

State attorneys also argue in court documents that a large release would hamper aid programs for the homeless and overwhelm hospitals.

“Community hospitals, social services, safety nets and other infrastructure are very stressed and struggle to meet the current needs of the community,” they said. “Mass liberation could add to the pressure on the free global health system today.”

But the state prison system already relies on many of these same community hospitals for high-quality patient care, state attorneys admitted. And it is unclear whether prisons have the resources to care for inmates whose lungs are attacked by COVID-19.

The federal receiver’s office, which has overseen the care of detainees since 2006, told The Times that it had no records reflecting the number of ventilators in the prison system. A senior lawyer in a long-standing federal litigation with the state said he thought the number was zero.

Some 46,000 inmates live in open dormitories with bunk beds two feet apart. The prison medical system reports that 45,000 of the state’s 120,000 inmates – 37% – pose at least one health risk from COVID-19 infection, including 14,700 inmates with asthma.

California plans to move some 500 inmates from open dormitories to alternative accommodation that includes beds in gyms, a return to a California practice used at the height of prison overcrowding. Prison workers were also asked to make a hand sanitizer for the prison system.

Several detainees, speaking directly or through family members, told The Times that they felt in danger. They describe elderly, infirm and young detainees crammed into dormitories with shortages of soap and lack of access to disinfection chemicals, and some make their own protective gear.

“My father said that the guys are now making masks with everything they can, shirts, socks …” said a woman whose father is at the California Institution for Men in Chino, where 12 people were tested positive for COVID-19.

The country’s prison systems have been under pressure for weeks to intensify their efforts. The response has been mixed.

On Wednesday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons announced a 14-day progressive lockdown in its 122 prisons, allowing access to educational and mental health programs but confining most inmates to their cells after the death of an inmate in a penitentiary of Louisiana.

Several California medical and prison officers have told The Times that despite public proclamations of social distancing and improved sanitation, life in the prison yard remains unchanged.

“As recently as yesterday, I saw large groups of inmates together in the yard while on the other side of the yard 20 +/- correctional officers all got together for a sharing dinner,” wrote a prison employee, speaking anonymously, because he feared losing his job to discuss conditions of detention without authorization.

“Earlier in the week, a handful of detainees were quarantined for symptoms and then withdrawn 3 days later,” he said.

Prison registers provided to The Times by another source corroborate this account. They show several locked cell blocks when groups of inmates develop flu-like symptoms and resume normal activity a week later.

“Nothing in this pandemic is taken seriously,” said the state worker, “and thousands of detainees and workers are in great danger.”


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