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Report: Screening Failures Cited in COVID-19 Outbreak in California Prisons

“Nine is an extraordinary number of staff deaths,” stated attorney Michael Bien. “I cannot recall anything like that in any year. Right now it is very dangerous for those in custody and those working there.”

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (Department) instituted mandatory screening for visitors and employees at all of its 35 prisons last March. One month later, the Office of the Inspector General examined the prisons and found that the directive that all the staff and visitors would be screened for COVID-19 was being inconsistently applied.

Some of the prisons screened incoming personnel in the parking lot before the person could even get out of their car. Others did not screen until the person was somewhere on prison grounds. “We found that this second approach increased the risk that staff or visitors may have walked into or through other work spaces without having been screened,” said the report. “By that point, although our staff were eventually screened, the screening failed to accomplish its purpose: our staff could have already infected departmental staff.”

A survey conducted for the report showed that 5% of prison employees statewide admitted that they were not screened. In addition, screeners said they had never received any formal training, compounding the risks of allowing the virus onto prison grounds.

In addition, investigations revealed malfunctioning thermometers, registering inaccurate temperatures — sometimes because of weak batteries.

Prison officials reported all information on prisoners who had tested positive for COVID-19 but not staff. They stated that release of this information violated employees’ right to privacy. The report noted that this withholding of information hindered the review board’s ability to fulfill its mission.

Corrections Secretary Ralph Diaz stated that the department was taking steps to address all of these situations. Nonetheless, the report criticized the Department for its initial improper handling of COVID-19 screening and for withholding information pertinent to the investigation.

Prison Law Office attorney Don Specter called the inspector general’s findings disturbing. “Since staff are the main way the virus is able to enter the prison, the failure to properly screen and test staff to determine whether they are infected may have led to an increase in infections and illness among those incarcerated, other staff and members of the community,” he said.

As of October 8, 14,870 California prisoners had been infected with the coronavirus, according to data gathered by The Marshall Project. Sixty-nine had died along with 10 staff.

“By their very nature, prisons operate as controlled environments in which everyone’s movements and activities are closely monitored,” the Inspector General’s report said. “In 2020, the novel coronavirus disease, known as COVID-19, swept the world, growing to global pandemic proportions, and is now impacting congregate living situations, such as prisons, especially hard … The lives of all those who interact within the system—hundreds of thousands—are literally at stake. 


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