In the midst of a major coronavirus outbreak at San Quentin State Prison that has thrown the facility into turmoil, an emergency transfer of incarcerated men to a prison in the Bakersfield area has been halted after two people on the transfer list tested positive for the virus, The Chronicle has learned.
“Additional testing for COVID-19 being conducted on the inmates scheduled for transfer revealed two positive cases,” Dana Simas, a state corrections spokeswoman, said in an email. “Those inmates are now in isolation and under medical watch.”
The scheduled move, announced by the state corrections department Friday evening, was heavily criticized by prisoner advocates and their loved ones, who said the transfer could spread infection to another prison and the men should be released to their communities instead.
Critics of the plan also said they were baffled because a similar transfer is what touched off the San Quentin outbreak in the first place, as The Chronicle has reported.
San Quentin had no coronavirus cases among its incarcerated population until an ill-fated transfer of men late last month from the California Institution for Men in Chino — the site of the state prison system’s deadliest outbreak.
A Chronicle investigation revealed that 121 men put on buses and brought to San Quentin were not tested for the coronavirus for up to a month before they were bused by the dozens. After the transfer, the number of virus cases among San Quentin residents and staff exploded. By Saturday afternoon, 613 prisoners and more than 80 staff members were confirmed to be infected, according to the state’s web tracker.
Because the transfer of men from Chino led to such a mess, many in the San Quentin community — residents, staff and loved ones — had been worried since Friday, when the state said it intended to transfer as many as 150 San Quentin men to North Kern State Prison, a facility with 2,200 incarcerated men in the Central Valley.
Marvin Mutch, a former San Quentin inmate and director of advocacy with the Prisoner Reentry Network, said he received a number of panicked calls from the loved ones of San Quentin residents.
Early Saturday morning, men housed in multiple areas of the prison, including West Block and the gymnasium, were told to gather their belongings and prepare to immediately board a bus, Mutch said he was told.
But just prior to the transport, staff learned about the two positive cases. The state corrections department had said it would only take San Quentin men to North Kern if they all tested negative first.
Although Mutch and other prisoner advocates were glad to hear the transfer would not be happening, at least not in the next few days, the experience left them shaken.
“I don’t know what they think they’re doing,” Mutch said of the state corrections department. “It’s remarkable, what’s going on. It’s unbelievable.”
Vanessa Nelson-Sloane, whose organization Life Support Alliance advocates for prisoners with life sentences, said that when she first heard about the transfer of men from San Quentin to North Kern, she told state prison officials it was a bad idea, because the earlier transfer — of men from Chino to San Quentin — had worked out so poorly.
“This virus is so prolific, and you almost can’t test fast enough to catch it, and that’s what we’re all worried about,” Nelson-Sloane said. “We can’t even keep it out of the White House. … It’s just pervasive. It’s just everywhere.”
Adamu Chan, a man incarcerated in San Quentin who called into a town hall organized Saturday by restorative justice groups, gave a grim description of conditions in the prison. He said he sleeps in an open dormitory with 50 bunks on one side and 50 on the other, meaning that 100 people are sharing restrooms and common areas.
The bunks are stacked close together, Chan said. Those sleeping on top are inches away from the person in the next bunk, those on the bottom have about two feet of separation.
Recently, officials presented a diagram with instructions for people in adjacent bunks to position themselves alternately with their heads to the wall or feet to the wall, as a way to create more distance.
“Social distancing is not… a reality here,” Chan said.
Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods, who also spoke in the town hall, called for aggressive steps to reduce the overall prison population, such as early release for 37,000 incarcerated people who he said would be released within a year anyway. Additionally, he urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to release 5,000 inmates who are age 65 or older.
“We understand and share the concern of COVID-19 cases in the state’s prisons, and are implementing multiple strategies to control the spread of the virus,” corrections spokeswoman Simas said in the email.
Said Mutch, “They should be releasing people to their community. There are plenty of people in prison who don’t need to be in a $91,000-a-year bed.”