By Megan Cassidy and Jason Fagone
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN QUENTIN, Calif. — Prison officials are planning to bus as many as 150 incarcerated people out of coronavirus-ridden San Quentin State Prison to a Bakersfield-area institution as early as Monday, sources said, in a move critics and a lawmaker said is reminiscent of the botched transfer that triggered San Quentin’s outbreak in the first place.
A spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirmed the planned transfer, but did not specify how many people would be included.
“The department is very concerned with the increase in positive COVID-19 cases in San Quentin, and in order to create more space to facilitate physical distancing, quarantine, and health care treatment efforts, CDCR will be transferring some inmates next week to North Kern State Prison,” spokesperson Dana Simas said in an email. “Every precaution is being taken before and after the transfer.”
But family members of incarcerated men said they fear the move by prison officials will increase the spread of the virus, and possibly introduce the virus into yet another vulnerable community.
“I think that what they’re doing is extraordinarily risky with this disease,” said Barbara Scott, whose husband is at San Quentin but not slated for transfer. “They can’t guarantee that someone who has tested negative won’t test positive a few days later. … I think CDCR should focus on fixing what’s wrong in San Quentin right now, rather than transfer inmates to another prison.”
And Marc Levine, a state Assembly member representing Marin County, said he is concerned the pending transfer of San Quentin inmates to North Kern would be a repeat of the transfer a month ago of inmates from California Institution for Men in Chino to Corcoran and San Quentin prisons — which he called “probably the biggest prison health screwup in state history.”
“Any time you move prisoners in this environment it’s a risky gamble,” he said, adding that he hopes prison officials are more stringent with isolating, quarantining and retesting. “They must learn from the mistake they made when they transferred prisoners to San Quentin.”
Several people spoke to The Chronicle on Friday about the planned move on the condition their names not be disclosed, and in accordance to the paper’s anonymous source policy. They included prison workers, incarcerated people and family members who feared retaliation if they were named.
Some family members said the transferred inmates will be taken from San Quentin’s West Block — where, they believed, there have been no confirmed cases so far.
But on Friday evening, three sources told The Chronicle that the West Block was placed under medical quarantine, meaning either someone there has tested positive or was very likely infected.
A San Quentin employee said that while North Kern has a lot of empty space, the coronavirus testing process is imperfect, meaning that some prisoners headed to North Kern could be infected even if they test negative.
“I would feel so bad seeing another prison go through what we are going through right now,” the employee said.
Between May 28 and May 30, corrections department officials transferred 66 incarcerated men from the California Institution for Men in Chino to the state prison at Corcoran and 121 others to San Quentin.
At the time, the Chino facility was the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in state prisons. The move was intended to spare medically vulnerable patients there by moving them to prisons that, until that point, had no confirmed cases in their populations.
But prison officials failed to test the transferred men for up to a month before they were bused by the dozens and sent to the other prisons. A handful of the incarcerated people tested positive immediately upon arrival at both San Quentin and Corcoran.
The transfers touched off mega-outbreaks at both facilities: As of Friday, there were 545 in-custody cases at San Quentin and 128 at Corcoran. There are currently five active coronavirus cases among North Kern’s population.
The outbreaks have extended to prison employees as well. There are now 89 San Quentin staffers who have tested positive and 24 at Corcoran. There are 12 employees at North Kern who have tested positive, according to the prison website.
Glen Harder, 58, an inmate housed at San Quentin’s North Block, said the intended transfer is “doubling down on what they did at CIM (in Chino).”
“There’s no way West Block doesn’t have infections,” he said, noting that men in the West Block often intermingle with those from the North Block, which houses several infected people.
“All these guys have been working in the hospital, in the kitchen together,” he said. “They stopped that about two days ago, but that’s way too late.”
A man incarcerated at West Block said he learned he was on “the list” for transfer Friday afternoon.
“My heart dropped to my stomach,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “I was like ‘Oh God, a repeat of Chino? Seriously?’ I was extremely dismayed and disheartened.”
The inmate, who is under 40, said the move will take him far away from his family in the Bay Area and will require him to sit for hours on a packed bus next to dozens of other men who may be infected.
“It just shows the indifference to my life, and it makes me feel devalued as a human being,” the man said of the transfer. “I’ve been incarcerated for 10 years, this has to be the darkest moment of my incarceration.”
North Kern State Prison currently contains 2,269 incarcerated people, according to state prison data. It is designed to hold more than that — about 2,700 residents — making it one of the least crowded prisons in the state’s notoriously overcrowded system, at 86% of its capacity.
But social distancing is inherently difficult in any prison, and as staff move from place to place in a facility, they may carry the virus with them, infecting even those in isolated or quarantined areas. In an “Urgent Memo” submitted to a correctional health official in mid-June, a team of University of California health experts warned about the danger of unrestricted staff movement at San Quentin, for instance, calling it “an enormous risk for the spread of COVID-19 between units.”
Simas said the inmates are being tested and evaluated before and after the transfer.
“If any of those in the identified cohort test positive before the transfer, none will be moved,” she said. “Once moved, they will be quarantined in currently vacated housing units at North Kern upon their arrival.”
Prison officials said those bound for Kern will be tested within seven days of the transfer and must be negative. They will also be screened just before departure, and tested again after arriving at North Kern.
Upon arrival, officials said, the transferred people will be single-celled and quarantined for 14 days and tested again before any additional movements are made. If the move takes place, the official said, the San Quentin gym will be turned into a medical triage center.
Assemblyman Levine called for the removal of the prison executive who he said authorized the Chino transfer that kicked off the infections at San Quentin and Corcoran: J. Clark Kelso, leader of California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS), the federally appointed organization responsible for medical care in California state prisons. This complicated leadership structure, with oversight split between the state and federal governments, is the legacy of a long-running federal lawsuit over the quality of prison medical care in California.
The state corrections department has blamed CCHCS in court documents, saying that CCHCS did not properly test the men before ordering the transfer. CCHCS has said that the transfer was planned and organized “jointly.”
In a call with Levine this week, Kelso admitted his mistake, referring to the transfer as a “self-inflicted wound,” Levine said.
CCHCS declined to make Kelso available for an interview. Simas said that CCHCS is helping to coordinate the upcoming transfer of San Quentin residents to North Kern.
©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle