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COVID-19 Outbreak Devastates California's San Quentin Prison


In a matter of weeks, COVID-19 has raced through San Quentin Prison, California's oldest prison. Health officials call it the biggest prison health catastrophe in the state's history. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Prisons are designed with secure perimeters, not deadly pandemics, in mind, especially one built in 1852. With the coronavirus now ravaging San Quentin, the long-overcrowded facility is running out of space. Staff are setting up tents in a prison yard to treat COVID-19 patients. Larry Williams is an inmate at San Quentin.

LARRY WILLIAMS: I tested positive for COVID on June 11. I was placed in isolation four days later, when they should've placed me the same day I tested positive.

WESTERVELT: Williams, a nonviolent offender, is recovering. He says the fear, isolation and anxiety - awful during normal times - is now worse as inmates worry about the deadly virus spreading unchecked. Some inmates are on a hunger strike in protest. Half of all nurses are calling in sick. Williams says infection rates are probably far higher than reported. Many inmates are afraid to get tested or to leave their cells.

WILLIAMS: They're not doing much for us. And a person like me, who has bad high blood pressure - I take hypertension pills, and they were afraid that my heart was going to stop, so they told me to stop taking my blood pressure medication.

WESTERVELT: About half of San Quentin's inmates, like Williams, have underlying health problems that heighten their risk of harm from the virus. More than 100 of the prison's death row inmates have been infected, including one who died. The crisis was avoidable, health experts say. Throughout March, April and May, San Quentin had zero inmate infections. Then, at the end of May, more than 100 inmates were transferred there without adequate testing from an overcrowded state men's prison in Chino, where some 700 men had tested positive for the virus. A California Department of Corrections spokeswoman declined to talk with NPR about the bungled transfer and why inmates weren't adequately tested during a deadly pandemic.

DAVID SEARS: Shocking and heartbreaking are certainly the words I would use to describe it. You know, it's devastating how quickly it's moved through the prison.

WESTERVELT: Dr. David Sears is a physician and professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco. He warned loudly June 13, before infection rates exploded, that the prison had to take quick and significant action to avoid exactly this kind of debacle. Long overcrowded, San Quentin inmates share bathrooms, showers and telephones. For safety, cleaning supplies can't contain alcohol or bleach, making basic sanitation harder. Warnings by Dr. Sears and his colleagues went unheeded.

SEARS: None of the cells except for in one small area of San Quentin actually have walls on all sides, in very close quarters in dormitory settings, and it is just nearly impossible to really effectively mitigate the spread of a virus within a prison that's overcrowded and that was built over a hundred years ago.

WESTERVELT: The infections are now rippling outside the prison's walls, affecting the larger community. Dr. Matt Willis is the health director of Marin County, where the prison sits. He's seeing sick inmates and staff starting to fill up intensive care units in the county's hospitals.

MATT WILLIS: Some of them are on ventilators. You know, the problem is that this is sort of colliding with increased incidents of COVID-19 throughout the region, and so the hospitals are getting more and more constrained. It's harder and harder to find beds for these inmates.

WESTERVELT: Across the state, the corrections department has agreed to grant early release to some 3,500 inmates, but advocates say that's not nearly enough. Dr. Willis says, after weeks, the state is finally starting to take action. In addition to those tents, they're planning to set up an incident management team to better coordinate care and transfer of sick inmates. Dr. Willis says the prison's small medical staff is trying mightily but is simply overwhelmed.

WILLIS: There's questions around who to test and at what intervals, how to do the contact tracing, and how do you make sure the patients who are ill are getting the care that they need both at the facility and then for transfers out?

WESTERVELT: Dr. Willis and others say San Quentin's ongoing crisis should offer stark warnings for prisons and jails across the nation, many of which are now struggling to handle their own outbreaks. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.