In early April, state correctional officials said they were trying to figure out the origin of COVID-19 infections that had begun to appear at the California Institution for Men, a state prison in Chino, which at the time had one inmate and 11 staff test positive for the disease.
As of Thursday, that number has ballooned to 67 confirmed cases at the prison, with 46 inmates and 21 staff testing positive for the coronavirus, the largest outbreak of the disease among all state prisons in California, according to statistics provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Also Thursday, CDCR officials confirmed that one inmate and two employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at the California Institution for Women, also in Chino.
The men’s prison in Chino was among the first state prisons to report a positive case among its employees on March 21.
In March, leading up to those initial infections, CDCR officials began to make sweeping changes to prevent the coronavirus from spreading into its facilities, such as banning all visitations to prisons, suspending rehabilitation programs, which are often hosted by non-profit advocacy groups, as well as the postponement of parole hearings.
After urging from a coalition of advocate groups such as Justice Collaborative, American Civil Liberties Union, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, California Public Defender’s Association, and Los Angeles County Public Defenders, prison officials announced on March 31 they would release an estimated 3,500 inmates early.
The first batch of nonviolent offenders would be released to parole up to 30 days early, while the next group would be released up to 60 days early, officials said. Violent offenders, sex offenders and those serving time for domestic violence were not eligible for early release.
However, population movement in the two state prisons in Chino since the announcement has been minimal.
At the men’s prison in Chino, the overall inmate population has decreased by 64 people since April 1, to 4,226 inmates from 4,290, according to the latest count released by CDCR on Wednesday. Their population still remains 17% over the prison’s designed capacity, a common reality for the majority of state prisons that are dealing with overcrowding. And at the women’s prison in Chino, their inmate population has remained at 1,877 since the announcement or early releases.
Norma Cumpian, an advocate with Anti-Recidivism Coalition, who had been incarcerated at the women’s prison in Chino from 1993 to 2010, said she is concerned about news of the confirmed coronavirus cases inside CIW and would like to see more inmates released from the prison.
“It’s really scary,” Cumpian said. “I know that CDCR is trying to be transparent, but they need to release more people.”
She regularly exchanges emails with friends currently incarcerated at CIW through a message system approved by the prison. Among her communication network are inmates who are considered at risk due to health conditions and old age.
One of her friends said the inmate who tested positive for COVID-19 lived five cells down from hers, and their entire cell block has been on lockdown since.
Another friend reported that inmates do not have access to masks and that they were reserved for inmates who are considered high risk. Cumpian said most inmates lack the resources or material to make their own masks, unlike many in regular society.
Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for CDCR said inmates at some prisons have been assisting with producing reusable cloth masks that are to be provided to all staff and inmates at state prisons. Simas said officials also approved overtime for inmate workers, which is, according to her, the first prison industry system to do so in the country.
Cumpian said among her communication network at the women’s prison in Chino, none have received those masks.
As of Thursday, nine inmates at CIW have been tested for COVID-19, and at the men’s prison in Chino, 74 inmates have been tested with 12 tests still pending.