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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

The test came back positive, and Anderson said the probation department immediately asked him in a polite but stern way to take a free room at the local Best Western for 14 days. He was asymptomatic but could have been spreading the disease without knowing it.

"I just wonder how many people they let go like me," he said.

Corrections officials have not explained the faulty testing at Chino or other specific problems related to early releases, instead pointing to steps they've taken to prevent recurrences.

Recently established protocols now require testing to be done no more than seven days before release.

Those who test positive will be isolated and kept in prison until they are no longer contagious, according to the corrections department. An inmate's case is deemed resolved once at least five days have passed after a fever has gone away without temperature-reducing drugs, and at least 14 days after a positive diagnosis is made.

Corrections officials said that early-release inmates in quarantine status are referred to Project Hope, a voluntary initiative that provides free hotel rooms and food. Those who decline to participate, or do not get special permission to be released to a private residence, will remain in prison for the 14-day period, officials said.


The growing numbers of expedited releases, combined with shutdowns of programs because of the virus, have upended how local authorities deal with newly freed prisoners.

"We are reinventing how reentry works," said Alameda County probation chief Wendy Still. "That's what we are seeing being built in an ad hoc kind of way."

Still, whose department is one of the best-funded and most progressive in the state, said that despite early problems, it now has a system in place to quarantine early releases for 14 days in local hotels; those who comply will have the time deducted from the end of their probation period.

Despite "good intentions by the state," she said, her department assumes that everyone coming out of prison is potentially positive for the virus because of the intervals between testing and release.


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