Nadia Lopez
December 19, 2020

Coronavirus infections inside prisons have exploded in recent weeks with one of the worst surges taking place in California, where more than 40,000 inmates and staff across the state’s 35 prisons have tested positive for the virus.

In the past two weeks alone, the state has raked in about 8,200 new cases, a staggering number that has public health experts worried the outbreaks could threaten the wider community and further strain the hospital system.

The prison population suffered some of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks in the central San Joaquin Valley, where the pandemic has ravaged the local community and depleted hospital resources and intensive-care unit beds.

As of Thursday, 11,131 inmates in the Valley’s nine prisons have been infected and 17 inmates have died in the past nine months since the virus first arrived. A total of 104 prisoners in California have died from the virus as of Thursday. Nine thousand two hundred and sixty-three correctional staffers tested positive and ten have died statewide, according to state data.

The number of inmates in custody with active COVID-19 cases at the Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga grew from about 450 cases the week of Nov. 25 to about 1,200 two weeks later. That’s an increase of more than 160%, according to data collected by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

As of Thursday, the number of active infections had dropped to 639.

In total, Pleasant Valley has had 1,704 cases and one death as of Thursday, state data shows. The largest uptick in cases began in mid November. Before that, the prison had just a few reported COVID-19 infections.

The prison with the largest outbreak in the state has been Avenal State Prison in Kings County with 3,018 total inmates infected as of Thursday. Eight inmates at the prison have died.

Cramped conditions, poor oversight to blame, state inspector says

The numbers are alarming but not surprising, according to some experts who say mass incarceration and worsening conditions inside the state’s prisons have led to overcrowding and cramped quarters — the perfect conditions for a virus to run rampant.

“The crowding levels in these facilities are contributing significantly to outbreaks,” said Aaron Littman, deputy director of the COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project at the UCLA School of Law.

Due to the rapid spread, the state has taken steps to reduce its prison population, releasing a total of 22,687 individuals since March. But prisons are still over crowded, which means following health safety protocols such as social distancing and quarantining are difficult, Littman said.

That makes incarcerated individuals five times more likely to get the disease compared to the general public, according to a study released by the Johns Hopkins University and UCLA’s COVID-19 Behind Bars data project.

Still, despite the drop in the population, California’s prisons on average remain at more than 103% over capacity, according to state data.

Inmates are also subject to higher rates of chronic illness, unsanitary conditions and are increasingly aging, which makes them more vulnerable to getting complications from the virus if they get sick. As a result, the death rate for California inmates exposed to the virus has been about three times higher than the average from the population at large, the study shows.

“The population would need to be dramatically lowered, in order to give these facilities some hope of really stopping an outbreak in its tracks,” he said. “There doesn’t appear to be the political will to take the really dramatic steps that are necessary to protect incarcerated people, staff members and their communities.”

A lack of enforcement and poor oversight of the prisons’ correctional staff and inmates has also contributed to the spread, as many had failed to comply with health safety protocols, according to a recent report published by the prison system’s Office of the Inspector General. The prison system provided hundreds of thousands of masks and told everyone to wear them, but workers and inmates often violated those rules and didn’t follow orders.

Rarely did workers face consequences for not wearing masks, and when they did, it was almost always a verbal warning, according to the report.

Following the critical report, state prison officials confirmed they had taken the steps to enforce the use of masks, among other safety measures.

“We are holding daily calls with department leadership to ensure coordination and communication,” said Aaron Francis, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “We have implemented robust response and mitigation efforts across the system.”

What happens to local communities?

But damage to the California’s local communities has already occurred, some advocates say. As the state with the third largest prison population, the spread of the virus within the criminal justice system has had devastating effects.

What makes a prison outbreak dangerous is how damaging it could be to the rest of society, Littman said, as many prisons are located in remote parts of the state where healthcare resources are limited.

If an outbreak at a prison spreads to the rest of the population in that area, hospitals could get overwhelmed and the spread could be even more difficult to control, he added.

With the virus running rampant, already vulnerable populations throughout the Valley such as essential workers like farm laborers and service-sector employees, seniors over 65 and people of color could be at higher risk.

That’s already happening, as counties throughout the Central Valley are feeling the strain on the hospital system. Just this past week, the availability of intensive-care beds across Fresno County dropped to zero — the lowest reported in the state.

Still, Fresno County officials have said the dilemma in the prison system is out of their hands. Though they are willing to provide additional resources such as contact tracing, testing and PPE as needed, they’re focusing their efforts on combating the spread of the virus within the community.

“We’re trying to support them as much as we can, but we are not providing additional support at this time” Dr. Rais Vohra, Fresno County’s interim health officer said in a news conference last week. “We are not having to provide testing or other contact tracing support for that population but certainly we are willing to help as needed.”

“Whenever inmates are released or they have positive staff, our contact tracing team gets involved,” he added.

People of color in prison disproportionately affected

Though people of color are among the groups most affected by the virus, racial data of the inmates getting sick in California is not publicly disclosed, despite the disproportionate number of Black and Latino inmates in California’s prisons.

The most recent data shows people of color are overrepresented in the number of coronavirus infections. In California, the largest minority to bear the brunt of the pandemic has been the Latino community. Though Latinos account for 38% of the state’s makeup, they account for nearly 60% of all cases and almost half of all deaths, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

Black people makeup just 6% of the population and though they represent only 4.1% of COVID-19 cases, they are dying at disproportionately higher rates, according to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. Compared to their share of the state population, their share of COVID-19 deaths is about 1.5 times greater.

The most recent data collected through a public records request from STAT News in August showed of the 8,766 positive tests, “27% of those infected were white, 22% were Black, 44% were Latino, and 7% were another or unknown race.” As of December of last year, these numbers compare to a prison population that was “21% white, 28% Black, 44% Hispanic, and 6.5% other.”

Though the agency did not release demographic data on inmate deaths, Michael Bien, a lawyer who represents inmates, shared the data with STAT. Of the 54 inmates who had died in August, “25 were Hispanic, 15 were white, 8 were Black, 3 were Pacific Islander, 1 was Vietnamese-American, 1 was Native-American, and 1 was of unknown race.”

The data reflects state and national trends, Bien told STAT, showing a “disproportionate impact” on the prison system’s minorities.

Inmates should be prioritized for vaccine, experts say

As California officials scramble to contain the spread and with cases rising sharply by the day, an expert panel earlier this week recommended inmates and correctional staff should be among the first to receive a COVID-19 vaccine now that it is being distributed nationwide.

In a new report released Monday, the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice said “to maintain public health as well as public safety, frontline staff and incarcerated individuals should be among those who are given priority access to vaccines, personal protective equipment, and other public health resources as they become available.”

Several experts agree, adding that without prioritizing prisoners and staff first, the outbreaks will continue and the number of hospitalizations and deaths will only increase.

“It’s absolutely critical that incarcerated people be prioritized for the vaccine,” Littman said. “It really won’t be possible to prevent outbreaks without the widespread vaccination of prisoners, and efforts to slow outbreaks will continue to really make conditions in prison even more harsh than they were before.”

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