Nadia Lopez
January 9, 2021

December was a disastrous pandemic month for inmates in California’s largest women’s prison, with nearly a quarter of all inmates getting infected from COVID-19 in the last two weeks alone.

Criminal justice reform advocates blame correctional staff and top prison officials for failing to implement state-mandated safety protocols inside the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.

Local and state orders require social distancing, mask-wearing, and frequent cleaning and sanitation of a facility.

But the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, a self-described grassroots social justice organization, alleges that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and prison officials did not take the right steps to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within the facility.

In a statement released Tuesday, the advocacy group said the prison’s “ineffective protocols and gross negligence” have led to widespread infections and rapidly deteriorating conditions. The group said hundreds of lives are on the line as many inmates have pre-existing conditions that put them at heightened risk of developing complications from the coronavirus.

“Unfortunately, some individuals are really high risk,” said Kelly Ann Savage-Rodriguez, an advocate and formerly incarcerated inmate at the facility. “My biggest fear is that we’ll start to lose more people. Cases are going up, we’ve lost over 100 individuals statewide, and that is so scary. We hope not to see any more, but the way things are going, it’s only going to get worse.”

Infections at the prison have more than tripled in two weeks from 120 inmates and 37 employees on Dec.22 to 511 inmates and 79 employees as of Tuesday, according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. There have been 563 inmate cases and 207 staff cases at the prison since the pandemic began. Since then, one employee had died. There are currently a total of 2,041 inmates and 1,064 staff at the prison.

The advocacy organization claims prison officials did not have sufficient plans or protocols to deal with the surge in new cases and continued to house cellmates together for “hours on end” despite confirming some of them had tested positive for the virus.

Savage-Rodriguez said many of the inmates have been messaging her about the prison conditions, saying they are afraid of getting sick and potentially facing consequences for speaking up. In one instance, she said an inmate who recently had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor was put into a unit with COVID-19 positive individuals even though she was not sick.

Savage-Rodriguez said the inmate was not put in a lower-risk unit because there was no space for her.

“She just had cancer surgery, and instead of putting her in a lower-risk, isolated area, they had to put her in the unit with individuals who had tested positive for COVID,” she said. “Now she’s susceptible to even more risk.”

When inmates have gotten sick, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners said many were not provided consistent access to medical care or daily prescribed medications. They said inmates housed in quarantine units were subjected to squalid and filthy conditions and lacked cleaning supplies, which has exacerbated breathing problems for those already infected.

But prison officials say they have aggressively tested inmates and staff, mandated the use of masks, provided PPE, and made a substantial effort to separate inmates to try to curb the number of infections.

“We take the COVID-19 pandemic very seriously and will continuously adjust our response as new information and situations arise,” prison officials said in a statement.

CDCR also denies prisoners are living in dirty conditions or that guards and staff have not been wearing masks and protective gear. The state agency said it “remains committed” to conducting thorough cleaning and that inmates receive extra supplies such as hospital-grade disinfectants, window cleaner, sanitizers, and hard surface disinfectant wipes regularly.

“We refute allegations of mask shortages or that we are not providing the incarcerated population with cleaning supplies,” they said. “In fact, we have increased delivery of cleaning and disinfecting supplies to all institutions.

“All staff and inmates are educated via regarding COVID-19, to include physical distancing, the wearing of proper PPE supplies, hand hygiene, and how to identify signs and symptoms of COVID-19,” they added.

Still, advocates allege the prison’s handling of the crisis and its treatment of the inmates has led to the surge, as well as an uptick in anxiety and depression. They say inmates in need of mental health services are being ignored and are denied communication with family and friends at “a time when it is most needed.”

“They have the ability to make sure mental health is taken care of, regardless of what unit (an inmate) is in,” Savage-Rodriguez said. “COVID is serious, and so is the health and wellness of every single person incarcerated. It is their duty to make sure they receive the most basic care, and it’s just not happening.”

The organization is calling for the prison to take drastic measures to change the course of the life-threatening outbreak. The group has sent a list of demands calling for the expedited release of all medically high-risk inmates, provide “urgently needed” healthcare services, access to electronic devices to contact loved ones, enforcing the use of masks, and stopping retaliation and disciplinary action against inmates who express a COVID-19 related grievance.

The pandemic has rocked California’s prisons. As of Wednesday, there have been a total of 41,934 coronavirus infections among inmates and 12,993 among staff, while a total of 144 inmates and 11 staff had died from COVID-19 complications, CDCR data shows. Recent estimates show there are about 95,456 total inmates and 57,907 staff employed at correctional facilities statewide.

BEA AHBECK CASSON/ A sign at the entrance of the Central California Women’s facility in Chowchilla Monday. (1-7-13) BEA AHBECK Merced Sun-Star
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