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Fears grow that releasing thousands of California prisoners will spread COVID-19 into communities

Anita Chabria, Richard Winton and Kim Christensen, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- Missteps by corrections officials handling releases from state prisons are fueling fears in some California counties that thousands of inmates eligible for early release will spread the coronavirus in their communities.

Across the state, county probation officials and others on the front lines of the release of as many as 8,000 inmates by the end of August have complained that prisoners were recently freed with little notice to local authorities and without appropriate transportation or quarantine housing -- and in some cases, no clear indication they were virus-free.

County officials also have expressed alarm about potentially infected inmates who were released and allowed to ride on public transportation and mingle with the public.

"We have done everything we can to contain the virus, but they aren't helping," said Richard Egan, Lassen County administrative officer, referring to corrections officials he contends repeatedly "dumped" potentially contagious inmates there before establishing a quarantine regimen.

In a July 20 letter, Barbara Longo, Lassen County's director of health and social services, asked the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to test and isolate inmates for 14 days before releasing them. She cited the case of a recently released inmate, who visited with another freed prisoner while quarantined at a local hotel.

"We do not know how many times he left his room to go out," she wrote. "However, his 2 test(s) came back positive, 10 days after his release."

 

Local officials' concerns stem in part from the ill-fated transfer in late May of 121 inmates from a coronavirus-ridden prison in Chino to San Quentin, triggering an outbreak there that has killed at least 19 inmates and sickened more than 2,000 others.

Some Chino inmates were cleared for the move based on month-old test results that were useless, leading to a tightening of testing protocols that came too late for many.

At least 47 inmates have been killed by COVID-19 as more than two-thirds of California's 35 state prisons have been affected. The system had logged 8,039 cases by Thursday, when the count of active infections stood at 1,399.

Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to alleviate the outbreak by releasing as many as 8,000 inmates and further reducing the population by about 10,000 through delayed admissions.

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