6 Dead, 1,500 Infected As Coronavirus Ravages California's San Quentin Prison

Advocates are urging Gov. Gavin Newsom to release inmates from the state prison amid a COVID-19 outbreak.

Half a dozen inmates have died and more than 1,300 inmates have been infected by the coronavirus at San Quentin State Prison in Northern California, as advocates urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to release more prisoners.

In late May, San Quentin prison had zero confirmed cases of the virus among its around 4,000 inmates. But after more than 120 prisoners were transferred in from another facility in Chino — 25 of whom later tested positive for COVID-19 — an outbreak began that has grown to devastating proportions in recent weeks. As of Tuesday, 1,369 people incarcerated at San Quentin and 184 staffers had tested positive, adding up to more than 1,500 infected with the virus, per the state’s tracking tool. Only 13 inmates with active cases have been released so far.

Prisoners advocates and state politicians have been calling for Newsom to release more inmates in response to the crisis.

On Monday, the Democratic governor said that his administration has been working on the issue “every single day for the last three weeks” and that it was a “top priority.” His plan is to bring the prison’s population down to about 3,000 inmates over the “next few weeks” and he was “individually” reviewing cases, Newsom said.

It was not clear if all of the inmates to be removed to reduce San Quentin’s population would be released from prison entirely or if some would be transferred to other facilities. The governor’s office and the state’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for further comment.

Last week, 20 inmates at San Quentin went on a hunger strike to protest its inhumane conditions, including dirty, cramped cells, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Juan Moreno Haines, a journalist incarcerated in San Quentin who said he’s tested positive for COVID-19, told The Appeal last week that people were still locked up with others in cells ― a practice that ignores social distancing recommendations. Haines wrote in The Appeal in late June that prisoners were “reluctant to report when they’re sick” out of fear of being sent into the “punishing conditions” of solitary confinement.

On Tuesday, state legislators and other officials, including San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin (D) and state Sen. Scott Wiener (D), called for Newsom to release “medically vulnerable” and aging inmates from San Quentin, as well as those “deemed a low risk to public safety.” They also urged the governor to “dramatically reduce” prison populations across the state to less than half of current capacity.

Throughout California’s prisons, there have been over 5,000 confirmed coronavirus cases so far, and 29 inmates have died.

The state prison system has released 3,500 incarcerated people through “expedited” parole processes since March, per the corrections department. At San Quentin, the department has said it is taking measures to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, including having staffers’ temperatures checked before entering and reducing the number of people in common areas.

California overall has seen a steady increase in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, with more than 277,000 confirmed cases and more than 6,000 dead as of Monday. The state has hit a seven-day average of 7,800 new cases per day, and hospitalization rates have increased by 50% over the last two weeks, per the governor.

After being one of the earliest states to shut down businesses and direct residents to shelter in place, California began reopening in May. But it has since had to walk back reopenings in several areas as new cases ballooned.

The U.S. continues to lead the world with more than 2.9 million confirmed cases and over 131,000 dead from COVID-19 so far. Some of the country’s worst outbreaks have been in congregant settings like nursing homes, meatpacking plants, Amazon warehouses and other prisons nationwide.

“The virus is here and it’s getting worse by the day,” Charles Lawrence, then an inmate at Pendleton state prison in Indiana, wrote in a letter in mid-April, later shared with HuffPost. “It’s only a matter of time before it claims a life.” Just over two weeks later, Lawrence died from the coronavirus.

“Protect human beings behind bars,” Lawrence’s wife, Sanya, told HuffPost last week. “Their lives matter, too.”

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