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California’s San Quentin and Folsom Prisons Hardest-Hit by COVID-19

The situation has been especially dire at the state’s prisons at San Quentin and Folsom. Both are aged facilities — San Quentin opened in 1852, Folsom in 1880 — where open-sided cells stacked on top of one another encourage the virus’ spread. Both prisons also suffered overcrowding well into the course of the pandemic.

Though the 3,158 men San Quentin held on July 31, 2020, represented a significant reduction from the 3,988 in custody four months earlier, the number was still over 102 percent of its capacity. Even by September 30, 2020, Folsom’s 2,258 prisoners represented 109 percent of its capacity.

On top of these challenges, though, were questionable decisions by prison officials. When a coronavirus outbreak exploded at the state prison in Chino in May 2020, CDCR moved 140 prisoners to San Quentin — resulting in a new outbreak there. By June 22, 2020, some 350 prisoners and staff had been infected in what a federal judge derided as a “significant failure” by CDCR.

Another virus-motivated movement of prisoners at Folsom drew outrage in September 2020. One month earlier, the remaining 100 prisoners in the women’s unit had been consolidated to one side of the facility, and CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas had assured that “there were no current plans to move male inmates” into the space. Then 153 infected male prisoners arrived from the men’s section of the prison to take up residence there.

“Why would you bring cases in here?” said prisoner Sharon Elder, 55, whose medical conditions put her at risk of complications if she contracted the virus. 

Women incarcerated at Folsom are housed in a separate, newer facility, divided into two units separated by a corridor, locked doors and newly tinted windows. But the same staff members work both sides, crossing back and forth between the units, raising concerns about COVID-19 contagion. The women also must use that corridor, and though they can’t see the men on the other side of the tinted windows, they can hear them banging and making loud catcalls, prisoners reported.

“A lot of women here have been molested or raped,” said one female prisoner, Keera Butler, who called the experience of walking the hallway upsetting. 

California’s Prison Law Office (PLO) attorney Alison Hardy explained that CDCR is under a federal court order to create quarantine housing areas for prisoners infected with COVID-19, which is why the infected men were moved. PLO is in continuing discussions over the matter with CDCR.

A “tent city” was also erected in the yard at Folsom to isolate infected prisoners after the prison reported its first coronavirus outbreak in August 2020. Prisoner Daryel Burnett, who goes by the name Ifoma Modibo Kambon, was isolated there for 14 days beginning August 10, 2020 — four days after the prison reported its first coronavirus case. That delay he chalked up to the “neglect and indifference” of prison officials.

As of February 4, 2021, CDCR had reported 197 prisoner deaths to COVID-19. There had been 2,241 confirmed cases among prisoners at San Quentin, along with 28 deaths, and 1,360 cases at Folsom, with two deaths there. 


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