California Prison System Fined $400,000 For Prisoner Transfers That Sparked Surge in COVID-19, Also Faulted For Easing Restrictions
The fine levied by the Department of Industrial Relations’ Division of Occupational Safety and Health follows a report issued three days earlier, on February 1, 2021, in which CDCR was blasted by its own Office of the Inspector General (OIG) — for the second time in just a few months — for its COVID-19 response. The criticism came over its “deeply flawed” prisoner transfers during the pandemic that “risked the health and lives of thousands” of CDCR’s prisoners and staff members at the aging prison facility in Marin County.
In its latest report, OIG accuses CDCR and California Correctional Health Care services of creating a “public health disaster” with the transfer seven months earlier of 122 prisoners to San Quentin from the state prison in Chino — which was then experiencing a coronavirus outbreak — “without taking the proper safeguards.” By August 2020, at the peak of the outbreak at San Quentin that followed the transfer, 2,237 of its approximately 3,300 prisoners had been infected and 28 had died.
But CDCR’s botched response to COVID-19 has not been limited to one prison. As of February 10, 2021, the agency had reported over 48,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among prisoners, with 206 deaths. Two-thirds of those infections — over 32,700 — were reported in a surge that began 15 weeks earlier on October 25, 2020, just one day before OIG released its earlier report. That one was also deeply critical of prison officials for easing mandates on mask-wearing and social distancing the previous June.
Taken together, the fine and OIG’s reports paint a disturbing picture of an agency that has had its own Emergency Operations Center (EOC) adjacent to its Sacramento headquarters since March 15, 2020, staffed with security and health services professionals who are tasked with monitoring all CDCR operations related to or affected by COVID-19.
The OIG reports trace almost to the beginning of the pandemic, when the speaker of the state Assembly asked in April 2020 for an audit of CDCR’s “policies, guidance and directives” concerning COVID-19. At the time, EOC was addressing concerns over a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) — especially face-masks — that seemed to be nationwide.
But that initial concern turned out to be unfounded because CDCR was able to produce masks in its own prison-industrial complex, the California Prison Industry Authority (CPIA). Employing about 7,000 prisoners in manufacturing facilities scattered throughout CDCR’s 35 prisons, CPIA’s garment factories manufactured and delivered 420,000 double-layer cloth “face coverings” (masks) for CDCR’s 63,000 plus employees and 130,000 prisoners by April 9, 2020. That was more than enough for everyone to have two masks each, and production has continued since then.
However, in keeping with the old adage that a horse can be led to water but not made to drink, OIG found that having PPE did not necessarily mean it would actually be used. In a detailed survey of seven California prisons, OIG found 62 percent of staff members reported witnessing fellow staff members and prisoners noncompliant with mask requirements. About 38 percent also reported witnessing noncompliance with social distancing requirements.
That could be because CDCR had issued a regulation on June 11, 2020, relaxing mask-wearing and social-distancing requirements “in an outdoor setting where six feet of social distancing can be accomplished” and allowing staff to unmask when alone in an office. It “explicitly superseded” an April 16, 2020, directive requiring everyone to wear a mask and socially distance at all times on prison property.
On July 1, 2020, a new CDCR memorandum was issued strengthening PPE and social distancing requirements. But by then, the policy vacillations had resulted in a scarcity of disciplinary charges for noncompliance with COVID-19 regulations and a lenient response in the face of guilt findings, so no disciplinary statistics regarding prison noncompliance with COVID-19 requirements were even mentioned in OIG’s reports.
The full history of OIG’s investigation into CDCR’s COVID-19 response actually covers three reports. The first, issued August 17, 2020, took a dim view of “inconsistencies” in the screening process “for all individuals entering a prison or facility in which inmates are housed or are present.”
The second report issued in late October 2020 was even more critical of CDCR for its distribution of PPE “to departmental staff and inmates” because of the agency’s enforcement gyrations.
The third report just issued was the most scathing of all in its assessment CDCR’s “treatment of inmates who are suspected to have either contracted or been exposed to COVID-19” because of the debacle at San Quentin. There, OIG found that:
• the prisoners transferred from Chino to San Quentin had not recently been tested for the coronavirus at the explicit direction of healthcare staff, which OIG investigators called an “inexplicable decision.”
• when they boarded transfer buses, the prisoners’ verbal and temperature screenings were too old to be reliable.
• once they arrived at San Quentin, they were “isolated” in holding cells with barred open doorways, exchanging breathing air as well as staff with the rest of the prison population.
Considering the infection and mortality figures now associated with the disease in San Quentin and all CDCR facilities, OIG’s findings are of grave concern.
Sources: theappeal.org, cdcr.ca.gov, oig.ca.gov, CNN, KTVU, davisvanguard.org, hadaraviram.com
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