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COVID-19 in the Country’s Largest Female Prison

The California Central Women’s Facility (CCWF) is large enough to easily comply with that court order and has assigned building 503 for that purpose, where 100 beds are used for isolating known infected prisoners.

But distressing stories have surfaced.

Prisoner Kandice Ortega was placed in 503 when her cellmate, not her, tested positive for COVID-19 in July 2020, according to the nonprofit newsroom The 19th. Ortega would test negative for the virus six times, but nonetheless remained there for several weeks.

CDCR public information officer Lt. Gene Norman denied this, stating, “When an inmate’s test [sic] have returned negative, they are released back into general population housing,” and further denied that any prisoners were placed in 503 before testing  positive for COVID-19 and stressed that 503 is kept clean and that guards wear masks along with other personal protective equipment.

Ortega reported a complete lack of cleanliness and no materials to clean with. She had to use her sanitary napkins in lieu of rags to clean tables and telephones. Whenever guards checked her living area for contraband, they did not wear masks and did not change gloves from area to area, increasing the probability of contagion from infected prisoners to non-infected prisoners.

After finally being released from 503, Ortega was so afraid of being returned there she experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Elizabeth Lozano, who wrote to California Gov. Gavin Newsom about her experience, has asthma, heart problems with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lupus and neuropathy — all pre-existing conditions that could prove fatal were she to contract COVID-19.

She suspects she was exposed during mandatory attendance at a substance abuse class by an infected instructor. Her three COVID-19 tests over a two-week timeframe were negative, yet she was forced to remain in 503. The showers were so filthy she could not bear to use them. She had no choice but to interact with infected prisoners and guards who had contact with infected prisoners.

She asked Newsom for assistance but never received a reply. Newsom’s office did not respond to The 19th’s inquiries about Lozano’s letter.

Norman stated prisoners are given sanitizer and soap and additional amounts may be requested if needed: “Every housing unit receives normal monthly supplies of cleaning materials which includes hospital-grade disinfectants, window cleaner, sanitizers, hard surface disinfectant wipes and all other cleaning products and CDCR institutions conduct deep-cleaning efforts in dayrooms, showers and living areas.”

Prisoner Laura Purviance spent several weeks in 503, The 19th reports. She was never even once tested for COVID-19. She stated, “Staff continues not to wear masks nor physically distance. She smuggles her meals from the cafeteria because there is “no social distancing” and no place to wash or sanitize hands before meals. She saw pipes leaking overhead and collapsed ceilings caused by these leaky pipes. CCWF spokespersons denied any collapsed ceilings “partially or otherwise.”

These three prisoners and several others were interviewed by The 19th after their release from 503 back to CCWF’s general populations. The interviewer noted unmistakable, outward signs of PTSD exhibited by all of the women.