CMC prison inmates demand release for handling COVID-19

A yard of the East Facility at California Men's Colony prison in March 2020.

A yard of the East Facility at California Men’s Colony prison in March 2020.

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Several California Men’s Colony inmates are calling for their release, claiming the prison and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation violated Eighth Amendment protections by failing to provide proper COVID-19 security measures.

Evidentiary hearings began on Tuesday in the case of 21 CMC inmates who filed habeas corpus petitions, alleging that the state failed to follow established pandemic procedures and therefore subjected them to cruel and unusual punishment.

The first of the motions was filed in San Luis Obispo Superior Court in October 2020, before 21 potential cases were consolidated into one motion in January 2021 by Judge Craig Van Rooyen. The outcome of this consolidated case will determine whether any further motions will be heard.

The detainees are all considered “high risk” by the virus because of their advanced age and/or pre-existing conditions, because they contracted COVID-19 at least once while in detention and/or because they have prolonged COVID-19 symptoms.

They claim, according to court documents, that the Men’s Colony and CDCR engaged in “deliberate indifference” when it came to providing a safe environment throughout the pandemic.

The California attorney general’s office disputes that claim, saying both entities “reasonably responded to the risk presented by COVID-19.” The AG also says that the problems that existed at the start of the pandemic have since been resolved.

CMC is currently dealing with an outbreak of COVID-19 among inmates, with 60 active cases and 114 new cases reported in the past 14 days, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. In total, the prison has recorded 3,098 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic – the fifth highest number of cases among California state prisons – and 13 deaths. There are currently 25 active cases among staff and 27 new cases reported in the last 14 days.

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A cell block in the East Facility at the California Men’s Colony prison. David Middlecamp [email protected]

Background to the CMC Detainees Case

The crux of this case is whether there remains a risk of serious harm to inmates held at the CMC, Brian McLennan, one of the inmates’ attorneys, told the Tribune.

“Not only are these breakthrough infections and the risk of prolonged COVID present, but we just don’t know where this is going,” McLennan said. “There could easily be a more deadly mutation, especially for groups at risk, especially prisoners. They simply have no control. They can’t get away from each other because they’re crammed in there, and that’s just not how you treat people.

According to court documents, the attorney general’s office believes the risk is no longer serious due to the availability and effectiveness of vaccines and the general decline in the number of COVID-19 cases. CDCR data shows that 86% of CMC inmates are fully immunized and 69% of CMC staff are fully immunized.

In an emailed statement to the Tribune, CDCR press secretary Dana Simas wrote that the California Department and Health Services “have implemented robust measures for the safety and well-being of all who live and work in our institutions” since the start of the pandemic, including the use of personal protective equipment among staff and inmates, mass testing of staff and inmates, adequate sanitation, limited movement measures and “robust isolation and quarantine measures in all establishments”.

A 2020 report by UC Berkeley Public Health and Amend, a UC San Francisco prison research initiative that assessed the COVID-19 situation at CMC found that population density and overcrowding was a central problem at the prison. The report found that the risk of COVID-19 transmission was particularly high at the time in the west block of the prison, where community cells are located.

“Decarceration is the most effective strategy to prevent and reduce transmission,” the report said. The attorney general’s office and the CDCR say the report is not relevant to the case because the issues raised in the report have since been resolved.

CMC has released 33 inmates with active COVID infections since the start of the pandemic, out of a total of 3,098 positive cases since March 2. By comparison, Norco’s California Rehabilitation Center has recorded 2,870 cases and discharged 98 inmates with active COVID-19 infections.

The CMC had 3,823 inmates in custody in March 2020 and 3,244 inmates in December 2021, according to the most recent data available on the CDCR website. It’s unclear what contributed to the drop, and Simas didn’t answer that question in his email response to the Tribune.

“It’s not like these people complain about the conditions and just want to get out. They are all literally scared. And scared to die in there,” Steve Rice, another attorney for the inmates, told the Tribune.

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Facility Yard is at the California Men’s Colony Jail. David Middlecamp [email protected]

What happened at Tuesday’s hearing

Several inmates testified on Tuesday about their experiences in detention during the COVID-19 pandemic. San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera wanted to keep the focus on current prison conditions, so questions about the prison’s early response to the pandemic were kept brief.

Commonalities among inmate testimonies included a lack of masking by guards, particularly at the start of the pandemic, overcrowding in dormitories to the point that social distancing is impossible, poor ventilation and poor hygiene.

Brian Russell, an inmate at CMC, has kept a diary of the COVID-19 violations he has observed in custody since the start of the pandemic. He said he began keeping the diary “to exercise a record of the conditions we have been in since the start of this pandemic in order to show the court at the time of filing that this pattern of breaches of protocols continues to this day. ”

He said he updates the log every quarter hour, so any breaches that occur are logged in the log quickly.

He said officers only wear masks when outside officials, like the attorney general or the inspector general, visit the prison. “When we ask them why they (officers) don’t wear masks, they turn around and tell us, ‘You’re an inmate. You don’t tell us what to do.

Russell described overcrowded dormitories, with eight people housed in each sleeping pod. Although each sleeping pod is six feet apart, Russell said it was impossible to socially distance inside the pods. He also said that there were too many people in the dorm, so social distancing in general is impossible. And he said the cleaning chemicals were diluted.

Russell has also been infected with COVID twice while in custody at the CMC – once in September 2020 and again in January 2021. He said he needs to use his asthma inhaler more often to help control bouts of asthma. persistent cough. He said he also had trouble running out of breath quickly.

Another inmate, Michael Grant, has cancer and was infected with COVID-19 while detained at the CMC in December 2020. Two weeks ago his doctor recommended that he see a pulmonologist after testing for moderate to severe breathing difficulties. In the meantime, he was given an inhaler to improve his condition. Grant believes his lung issues are related to his COVID-19 infection as he never had respiratory issues before that, he said.

Grant said inmates receive one bar of soap per week and do not receive a replacement if they use the bar before the end of the week. He said masking is no longer enforced in the chow room and everyone is currently entering at the same time rather than in small groups.

Shai Alkebu-Lan, a 64-year-old inmate whose petition prompted the case, currently has COVID-19 in custody – his second time being infected with the virus. He tested positive for COVID-19 on Feb. 23 despite being fully vaccinated and boosted, and he said he has yet to receive treatment for his current COVID-19 symptoms.

Alkebu-Lan said he had heard prison guards say they had COVID-19 and did not care if inmates died.

He has asthma and said he hardly needed to use his inhaler until he contracted the virus while in CMC’s care. Now, he says, he relies on his inhaler to breathe several times a day.

Two of his friends are among the deceased inmates, and he said the apparent lack of care from CMC employees damaged his mental health and triggered his PTSD.

“I don’t want to die,” Alkebu-Lan said.

This story was originally published March 4, 2022 9:00 a.m.

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Chloe Jones is a forensic and crime reporter at the San Luis Obispo Tribune. She is originally from Phoenix, where she received her bachelor’s degree in journalism and her master’s degree in investigative journalism from Arizona State University. When she’s not reporting, she loves exploring the outdoors and spoiling her two rescue dogs, Camilla and Bugsy Malone.

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