COVID-19 Cases At California's San Quentin Prison Soar Past 1,000

The active cases affect about one-third of the Marin County prison's population.

California’s San Quentin State Prison, home to the state’s only death row, surpassed 1,000 active coronavirus cases on Monday in a disastrous outbreak that now encompasses about a third of the prison’s population.

According to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), 978 of the 1,021 cases at the Marin County facility were confirmed in the past 14 days.

“That is our deep area of focus and concern right now,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) said of the outbreak at San Quentin during his Monday news conference.

The roughly 3,500-inmate prison, the oldest in the state, reaches the milestone as California sees a statewide surge in cases that is forcing Newsom to close down businesses and activities in several counties that had reopened. The situation at San Quentin, other state lawmakers say, is shameful.

“Unrestrained COVID-19 infections at San Quentin State Prison is creating the worst prison health catastrophe in state history,” Assemblymember Marc Levine, a Democrat who represents Marin County, said in a statement last Friday, adding he’s been pushing prison officials to develop a plan to contain the disease spread.

“The current rate of infections at San Quentin tells us that the worst is yet to come,” he said at the time, when there were just 545 confirmed cases among San Quentin inmates.

Inmate advocates have linked the coronavirus outbreak at San Quentin and other prisons to the CDCR carelessly transferring inmates between prisons during the pandemic. More broadly, activists have noted that the way most prisons manage their inmate populations makes the recommended social distancing impossible. Health experts have warned since the early days of the global coronavirus outbreak that prisons would quickly become hotbeds for infection if officials didn’t act quickly to put safety measures in place.

The outbreak isn’t contained to inmates. About 90 San Quentin employees have also been infected, CDCR data shows.

Marin County officials also announced Monday that test results showed a 71-year-old death row inmate at San Quentin had died of COVID-19 complications. The inmate, Richard Stitely, was found dead in his cell last week. He is the first known San Quentin inmate to die of COVID-19.

Newsom said Monday that his office is evaluating the possible release of 3,500 inmates across California in light of the outbreaks at San Quentin and other state prisons. At his news conference, he said he hears the case that inmate advocates are making but is also worried many of those released inmates would be left homeless.

“Do you make a bad situation worse by releasing someone who’s not ready to be released?” he asked. The 3,500 inmates would be selected based on their medical vulnerabilities and time left in their sentences.

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