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San Quentin Had Zero COVID-19 Cases Until California Officials Sent Infected Prisoners, Triggered Wildfire

CDCR officials would argue that they didn’t deliberately transfer infected prisoners to San Quentin. But of the 121 prisoners transferred from CIM, not a single one had been tested within the three weeks before the transfer. Indeed, the reason the prisoners were transferred was to halt the spread of coronavirus at CIM, where nearly 700 prisoners were infected and nine had died. When they arrived at San Quentin, their temperatures were checked, but again, none were tested. For days, the new arrivals used the same showers and ate in the same dining hall as other San Quentin prisoners.

At a hearing before the state Senate, Ralph Diaz, secretary of the CDCR, said, “We care about the inmates, we care about the staff. Could we have done better in many instances? Of course we can.”

According to CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas, agency officials were confident they could halt the spread of the virus, considering that the prison system had managed outbreaks of influenza, norovirus, measles and mumps.

But Brie Williams, a physician and professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco and director of the university’s Criminal Justice & Health Program, said, “The difference with this infection is that with all of those other conditions we were able to essentially, eventually throw money at them in the way of fancy medications.” According to Dr. Williams, without a coronavirus vaccine, prisons are outmatched.

Dr. Matt Willis, the top official at the county health department where San Quentin is located, said he was told by state prison leaders “very clearly that this is not part of our jurisdiction.” He said the corrections system has a “lot of control over every aspect of their processes” and has not been transparent about their handling of the virus. “It may work in certain settings, but when you have a complex disaster that’s moving quickly, I think we’re finding that the process is just not matching our needs.”

When it comes to the spread of viruses and other contagions, a correctional facility is the proverbial “disaster waiting to happen.” Built with poor ventilation systems, they house hundreds, oftentimes thousands, of people in small, cramped spaces. Occupants usually sleep within inches of one another. All of the prisoners share limited telephones, showers, toilets, and dining tables. Most of these places prohibit cleansers that have bleach or alcohol. Substandard medical care predominates.

But San Quentin has additional crippling factors. It was built in 1852 and is at 117 percent of its capacity. Paint peels from the walls and puddles form after a rain due to leaking roofs. At least half of the prisoners housed there suffer from health conditions that increase their vulnerability to the virus.

The transfer from CIM to San Quentin has been denounced as a public health failure by health officials, a federal judge, and state lawmakers. But the denouncement needs to go to the core of the penal system itself. Instead of vengeance, degradation and humiliation of the prisoner being the primary goals, perhaps “justice” should be more concerned with treating poverty, racial inequality, mental illness, and yes, viruses.