Prison Outbreak: What’s Being Done To Slow The Spread

All this week, KCBS Radio is examining the coronavirus crisis behind prison walls. In part one, we heard what it is like to be sick with COVID-19 at San Quentin. In part two, KCBS Radio's Kathy Novak looks at what has changed inside prisons and what is being done to prevent similar outbreaks.  

In part one we met Thanh Tran, who is incarcerated at San Quentin.

He told KCBS Radio the atmosphere there is tense because, in order to limit interaction, people are locked in their cells for days at a time. 

"The other day I just heard someone just scream on the tier. He was like, 'I need some air! Let me out!' It’s chilling to hear a grown man just scream. Just to be let out of his cell."

People who were COVID-positive and have since tested negative are considered to have "resolved" cases. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said those people now have access to outdoor recreation. 

UC Berkeley epidemiologist Dr. Sandra McCoy visited San Quentin in June. She believes yard time is good for everyone - and not just for mental health and exercise. "Because yard time is outdoors, there’s air circulating, people are often spread out," she explained. "So while the inclination is to lock people down into a housing unit, that can actually be a higher risk environment than when people are actually able to go out and enjoy fresh air."

She is concerned that some people who were sick or exposed to COVID have been isolated in solitary confinement, which is usually used as a a form of punishment.

Fear of that possibility has led to some refusing coronavirus tests. 

The prison has set up alternative housing and care sites including in temporary tents, the chapel, a gym, and a Prison Industry Authority furniture factory. CDCR is also working to identify 100 vacant beds at each facility that can be used for isolation. 

At some prisons around the state, coronavirus case numbers are spiking. At the California Institution for Women, which houses pregnant mothers, about 300 people are currently COVID-positive out of a population of about 1,300. Almost 2,000 employees, who come and go every day from facilities around the state, have been infected. Six have died.

At the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Michael DeLongis, who is serving a life sentence, told KCBS Radio that officials are trying to be proactive.

"They did not want a San Quentin problem," he said, "So the tents went up before there was a problem."

Fellow lifer, Clay Turner, explains the population is especially vulnerable. "This is still a medical facility," he said. "If COVID got in here and took a hold in the inmate population, a lot of men will die. We’re living in a hospital with a lot of people with compromised immune systems."

Turner is among a group that has moved from dorms into what they are calling "tent city." He said each tent can hold a cohort of up to ten men. 

Herman Davis is also housed in the tents and says they could be there throughout the pandemic. "They said that there is no timeline," he said. "We could be out there for a month to a year to two years."

That is what worries Jameel Coles, who chairs the Inmate Advisory Council. "These tents that they gave us are like FEMA tents and so they’re made for short term housing. They’re using a short term solution for a long term solution."

Figuring out the new normal in prisons is one of the major challenges facing CDCR. It is unclear how or when rehabilitation programs and family visits will happen again. CDCR Secretary, Ralph Diaz, has said he will be paying very close attention to what is done in schools, and looking at some of the best practices of how to get people into group settings again. 

In part three of "Prison Outbreak," we will hear how those with incarcerated loved ones are coping.