Senate Public Safety Committee Examines COVID-19 in State Prisons

On Wednesday, the Senate Public Safety Committee convened an informational hearing to assess COVID-19 in California’s state prisons. Committee Chair Senator Nancy Skinner opened Wednesday’s hearing by providing an overview of the current COVID-19 case counts within state prisons among inmates and staff, as well as remarks on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) response and mitigation activities. Much of the hearing focused on the ongoing outbreak occurring at the San Quentin State Prison, as well as CDCR’s transfer processes and testing activities. Assembly Member Marc Levine joined the hearing as a special guest given that the San Quentin State Prison is in his district. Assembly Member Levine in opening remarks decried the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak at the setting in Marin County, contending that the state’s transfer of inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 into San Quentin the “worst prison health screw-up in state history.”

The hearing featured a panel of Newsom Administration representatives, including CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz, Correctional Health Care Services Federal Receiver Clark Kelso, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly, and California Department of Public Health Chief Deputy Director Susan Fanelli. Each of the Newsom Administration officials discussed their department and agency’s response roles in mitigating the further spread of the virus, notably with CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz defending his department’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreaks in state prison settings and acknowledging that “we can do better, and I know we will do better.” CHHS Secretary Mark Ghaly similarly acknowledged the challenges in controlling the outbreak in prisons throughout the state, noting that “there is no dispute that more could be and should be done” to stem the sharply rising cases.

Senate Public Safety Members widely criticized the Newsom Administration’s handling of the response and prison transfer processes. Committee Chair Nancy Skinner referred to the transfer of infected inmates as “abhorrent” and posed the question, “Was CDCR mandating the same public health protocols that the state asked the rest of us?” Other committee members, including Senators Holly Mitchell and Scott Wiener, expressed serious concerns with the ongoing case counts in state prisons, with Senator Mitchell labeling the incident at the San Quentin State Prison the “canary in the coal mine.” Committee members consistently pressed CDCR and other Newsom Administration officials to clearly detail the Administration’s action steps moving forward to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, both within state prison settings and in surrounding communities.

The hearing additionally included a panel focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the prison community featured representatives from the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, the Ella Baker Center, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, and the UCSF Department of Medicine. Notably, a former San Quentin inmate who was released six months ago detailed his experience in the facility relative to medical care and discussed at length fellow inmates still housed at San Quentin with chronic medical conditions and terminal illnesses.

The hearing agenda is available here and a video recording of the hearing is available here.