MORONGO BASIN — California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order last week halting the intake and transfer of inmates from county jails into state prisons.
The order was issued to protect the health and safety of state prisoners and staff members, Newsom said following news of six confirmed COVID-19 cases in four separate state prisons affecting five correctional officers and one inmate.
The number of affected staff members and inmates has since risen and on Wednesday, 11 staff members and one prisoner at the California Institution for Men in Chino in San Bernardino County tested positive for COVID-19. Tests for two more staff members and three inmates are pending.
“The state of California is responding in real time and fighting hard to deploy every resource to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Newsom said. “We are working with our public health experts, corrections system and our local sheriff’s departments to ensure proper protocols and procedures are in place to effectively limit risks in correctional facilities.”
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation temporarily suspended the intake of new inmates from local jails to prisons and canceled in-person visits. San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon said the decision is not affecting county jails much now, but it may in the future.
“The number of inmates that we’ll keep in our facility that we would have sent to state prison is very low currently and depending on how much the courts are able to do in the next number of weeks, it may or may not impact our total overall population,” McMahon said during a press conference last week.
McMahon said the number of inmates in county jails has dropped over the last few weeks; he speculated that was partially due to the stay-at-home order. About 6,200 people were housed in the county jails about three weeks ago; now about 5,500 are inside, he said. The number of people being arrested and booked into county jail facilities has dropped about 17-18 percent.
“That could be because of a number of reasons,” he said. “Number one, folks are staying at home, they’re not getting involved in criminal activity as much as before. It could be that officers in the field are busy doing other things. But it could also be because folks are being involved in misdemeanor cases that they’re being cited in the field and not being booked into our facilities.”
McMahon said that due to this reduction the department has plenty of capacity to absorb the extra inmates who would normally be transferred to state prison.
“We’ll just see how that goes over the next couple of weeks,” he said.
Early releases urged as necessary to save lives
If jail populations rise, then more drastic changes may be needed to keep inmates and correctional staff members safe during COVID-19, McMahon said.
The American Civil Liberties Union released a new poll on Monday that showed support for releasing people from prisons and jails as part of the COVID-19 public health response.
According to the poll, 63 percent of registered voters support releasing people from jails and prisons to stop the spread of COVID-19; 72 percent of voters support clemency for elderly incarcerated people in the midst of this pandemic.
The polling comes after the death of federal prisoner Patrick Jones last weekend in Louisiana. Jones was the first person to die from the new coronavirus in federal prison.
“Public health experts have made clear that the nation must take immediate steps to reduce the number of people in jails and prisons as part of the coronavirus response efforts,” said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU’s justice division, in a press release.
“The tragic death of Patrick Jones over the weekend, a man incarcerated for a drug offense but handed a death sentence due to his incarceration, highlights that every day that passes without action puts thousands more at risk of getting sick or dying.”
On Friday, March 27, Newsom pardoned five people and commuted the sentences of 21 state prison inmates. These clemency requests were already filled before the COVID-19 outbreak, Newsom said, but were pushed through due to the crisis.
Newsom also announced on “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah that his office is looking at inmates who will be paroled in the next 30, 60 or 90 days and pushing forward those paroles to reduce prison populations.
Despite these actions, his office has said they reject the idea of reducing mass numbers of prisoners, particularly violent prisoners, due to the virus.
Alison Hardy with the Prison Law Office said that mass releases may be the only way to keep inmates and correctional staff members safe.
“Everyone knows the governor and the president have urged everyone to social distance,” Hardy said. “The problem is that the state is running facilities where there are 47,000 people living in very close congregate situations where social distancing is simply impossible.”
Hardy participated in a press conference on Tuesday morning, March 31, with several other inmate rights activists. She showed photographs of the current living quarters in Chino State Prison.
“We were recently at this facility,” she said. “We measured the beds. They are 38 to 46 inches apart. They can reach out and touch the person in the next bed.”
Hardy said it would be completely impossible for inmates to follow the state and federal social distancing guidelines and current conditions are unhealthy and unsafe.
She is currently working with a law office in Sacramento to file an emergency order that calls for the immediate reduction of the state prison populations.
“We are lead counsel in two statewide class actions, Plata vs. Newsom and Coleman vs. Newsom, to seek a reduction in the population of the California prisons in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” attorney Michael Bien said.
“Evidence from doctors and correctional experts showing how dangerous the current conditions are and how impossible it is for the men and women working in California prisons to stay safe during COVID-19.”
Bien said the class-action lawsuits request the release of prisoners to reduce prison populations and the release of medically vulnerable prisoners.
His office filled emergency motions on both of these cases, which will be heard by a judge on Thursday, April 2.
“We have many people who are aged, in cancer treatment, have diabetes, have a heart condition,” Bein said. “We have people who are in hospice care. These particular people will likely require hospitalization if they contract COVID-19.”
Despite these concerns Newsom said in a press conference last week that he will not be releasing violent criminals.
“I have no interest, and I want to make this crystal clear, in releasing violent criminals from our system, and I won’t use a crisis as an excuse to create another crisis,” Newsom said in a press conference. “That’s not the way we will go about this. We will do it in a very deliberative way.”
Piper Kerman, author of “Orange is the New Black: My Year in A Women’s Prison,” and an activist for inmate rights, said in a press release that the nature of an offense should not be a factor when discussing the release of elderly or ill inmates.
“I think that that is a dangerous way of looking at what is already a dangerous situation,” she said. “I’ve served time with people who have had more serious convictions than my own. Those folks are not more dangerous when they fall into that category of elderly or ill.”
Kerman said elderly prisoners are in the most danger and their presence in California prisons makes those prisons more likely to be petri dishes for the spread of the virus.
“The release of some of the elderly prisoners is something we must do to save lives,” she said. “This is when we can see the difference between politicians and leaders. I urge leaders to do what they must to save lives.”