Prison’s reaction to COVID-19 outbreak endangers our community, those close to the prison say

A correctional officer who works in Building 3 — dubbed the “COVID Building” by prison employees — alleges the prison’s response to the recent transfer of inmates sickened by the COVID-19 virus to the California Correctional Center in Susanville endangers everyone’s health — the inmates, the correctional officers, the prison staff and eventually the people of Lassen County themselves.

Here’s the modified program going on this week at the California Correctional Center, effective yesterday, despite nearly 200 new COVID-19 cases discovered within the last 14 days.

When asked for comment, CCC staff did not reply. Instead, Terry Harding, a public information officer with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, responded to our request for comment for this story.

“The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and California Correctional Health Care Services are working closely with the California Department of Public Health as well as local and national health experts to fight COVID-19 at all our institutions, including California Correctional Center,” Harding wrote in an email. “We appreciate our partnership with Lassen County and their efforts that enabled COVID-19 testing for CCC’s incarcerated population. We do understand their concerns about our operational changes at CCC, but want to emphasize we are working diligently to protect the people who live and work in our prison as well as our communities.”

But the correctional officer, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing his job, and a family member of another correctional officer who works in Building 3 disagreed with that assessment.

“Everybody’s mad,” the officer said. “The correctional officers, the staff, the inmates. Everybody.”

The officer said he’s not so concerned about getting the virus himself because he believes he can survive it.

“If I get it, I get it,” he said stoically. ”I can’t do anything about that.”

How about a little yard time during a pandemic? Graphics submitted

But his concern about becoming infected with COVID-19 at work centers instead upon bringing the disease home to his wife and family and possibly spreading it even further to members of the community. That’s his fear, and he hopes by speaking out, things at CCC may change for the better.

He called the prison’s response to the outbreak “a joke.” He said the prison could easily stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus among inmates, but it lacks the will. He said if correctional officers and staff simply kept the prisoners where they are in their cells — a lockdown and quarantine in effect — in two or three weeks with testing, the prison administration would know exactly who was infected and who was not, allowing the prison to quickly resolve the issue.

That’s an action he said the prison would never take because it would mean correctional officers and staff would have to assume all the job duties normally filled by inmates such as working in the kitchen and doing the laundry.

“That’s not going to happen,” he said. “Officers don’t want to do those jobs.”

Instead, inmates have returned to those jobs, deemed critical and essential by the prison brass.

He did acknowledge some inmates have been locked down during the last eight days or so and the relocation of prisoners within the institution has diminished recently, so there may be some improvement in that regard.

To make things even worse, the correctional officer said concerns with spreading the virus begin as soon as staff arrives at the prison to begin their shift.

He said if staff is wearing a mask, they must take it off before entering the nonpublic areas of the prison. That means staff members who touched the door handles on the way in, now must touch their face to remove the mask.

Staff members have their temperature taken before they enter the facility, but he said medical personnel usually do not provide that function. He said the untrained staff frequently touches staff with the thermometer, but it is not sanitized before the next staff member is tested.

Even worse, he said he’s seen staff members who were obviously sick allowed to go to work if they just tell screeners, “I’m alright.”

Frequently those doing the health checks are not trained medical personnel, he said.

A family member of another correctional officer provided similar information she said is known by everyone who works inside the prison’s walls.

The family member said correctional officers are starting “to get the stink eye” when they’re out in the community due to the spread of the virus, but it’s not their fault — they’re just employees following their supervisors’ orders.

The correctional officer alleges when he and others report violations of prison policy, most supervisors don’t care and get mad when an officer complains. In fact, he called the situation at the prison “chaos” because different supervisors interpret and enforce the policies and procedures differently. He said it seems to be an individual decision.

For example, on Monday, July 13, he said inmates were passing out bread through the food ports — which he said inmates are forbidden to do — hauling trays up and down the tiers without wearing facemasks.

On Tuesday, July 14, the officer said an inmate in the kitchen tested positive, and “they just found out.”

He said the prison moved the inmate who tested positive to Building 3, but not the inmate he’d previously been rooming with.

“The smart thing to do would be to leave him in the building where he lives,” the correctional officer said. “Instead, they’re moving the inmate who tested positive, but not the inmate he lives with. That makes no sense, but that’s why it’s spreading.”

In fact, while the procedure has slowed in recent days, he said the prison was moving inmates, including those who tested positive around the prison and housing them with inmates who were not infected.

He took a COVID-19 test, and he was told the result was he “was not likely to be infected.” He also wonders if the prison has committed HIPPA violations because staff are hearing about their test results “in a weird way” through the institution.

The family member alleges the person who is supposed to be the prison representative with the county’s Incident Command Team is in the middle of a four-week vacation.


How did this happen at CCC and Lassen County?

Four inmates from San Quentin State Prison who previously tested negative for COVID-19 were transferred to CCC as the outbreak overwhelmed SQSP. They were not immediately tested or quarantined upon their arrival at CCC, but later tested positive. So far, according to numbers from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, CCC has 195 active COVID-19 cases, including 195 within the last 14 days and 204 cases resolved.

Depending upon the source, one of two of those inmates were treated at Renown Medical Center in Reno, Nevada.

CDCR reports four inmates at High Desert State Prison have active cases, none in the last 14 days.

At SQSP, CDCR reports1,439 inmates have active cases, including 527 in the last 14 days. Statewide, CDCR reports 6,468 confirmed COVID-19 active inmate cases, including 1,097 in the last 14 days. CDCR reports 114 inmates were released with active cases, and there have been 31 inmate deaths.

CDCR also reports eight employees tested positive for COVID-19 at CCC (663 statewide) and 13 at HDSP, including three who have returned to work.


Direction from the warden

  1. Perry, CCC warden, issued the following directions to correctional officers Monday, July 14:

“On June 22, 2020, the California Correctional Center was placed on a statewide 24-day modified program in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 throughout the state. In addition, beginning June 21, 2020, CCC medical staff began receiving positive COVID-19 test results for inmates housed (at) CCC. The statewide modified program concluded on July 6, 2020. Effective July 7, 2020 the institution will remain on a modified program for monitoring and in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“The inmates identified with positive CoVID-19 test results and inmates exhibiting symptoms have been re-housed and isolated in the following locations … where they will remain on isolation status until deemed non-infectious.

“The remaining inmates who were housed with or possibly exposed to inmates who had positive test results have been re-housed quarantine status in the following locations …

“Inmates housed in quarantine dorms/housing units must wear cloth masks when encountering inmates or staff. Inmates housed in isolated dorms/housing units just wear surgical masks to prevent exposure any time they exit their assigned housing unit and encounter staff or inmates. In addition, staff shall comply with all PPE requirements posted on all quarantined and isolated housing units. The institution will remain on a modified program for monitoring and in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.