California to release 8,000 prisoners amid coronavirus crisis

California to release 8,000 prisoners amid coronavirus crisis

As many as 8,000 California prisoners could be released ahead of schedule in an unprecedented attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19 inside state prisons, with more than half of the releases expected by the end of the month.

The announcement on Friday by top advisors to Gov. Gavin Newsom offered stark evidence of the dire health conditions at several California prisons. On Monday, the top medical officer for the state prison system was removed from his position following criticism of inmate transfers that are believed to have led to a much larger coronavirus problem in prisons than existed this spring.

Officials at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said as many as 8,000 prisoners could be eligible for early release by the end of August. Those convicted of violent felonies and sex crimes would be ineligible for release. Only those with a year or less left to serve would be considered eligible.

“These actions are taken to provide for the health and safety of the incarcerated population and staff,” corrections Secretary Ralph Diaz said in a written statement. “We aim to implement these decompression measures in a way that aligns both public health and public safety.”

This is not the first effort by Newsom to address the spread of the virus in correctional facilities. In March, attorneys for the governor told federal judges that the state intended to expedite the release of as many as 3,500 prisoners who were within 60 days of their previously scheduled release date. In all, prison officials say their efforts at “decompression” of California’s prison system during the pandemic have resulted in a prison population that has shrunk by approximately 10,000.

Newsom on Thursday said nearly 2,400 people in California’s 35 prisons have tested positive for the coronavirus, including 1,314 at Northern California’s San Quentin State Prison.

“This is serious stuff and requires a seriousness of purpose. People are just saying just release thousands and thousands of people,” Newsom said. “Each and every one of these cases are sobering, challenging, and there’s a deep responsibility that comes with this job, but a sense of deep urgency as well to decompress the system in a judicious and thoughtful way.”

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