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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

"There is no guarantee that if you are tested one day, you won't test positive the next," Still said.

Her staff must wear full protective gear with every new release, and is largely communicating with those released via phone or internet. Simple tasks, such as picking someone up from prison, have become costly and complicated, with individual probation officers having to sometimes make on-the-fly decisions about safety.

"It is stressful," Still said. "They're a peace officer, so they are sworn to protect, but they are human too, so they have concerns not only for themselves but their families."

Probation departments in particular have been hard hit, since most of those coming out of state prisons are being sent into county supervision. Although the state recently provided $15 million in housing aid, many departments are overtaxed by the sheer volume.

Lonnie Reyman, chief probation officer for Del Norte County in the northwest corner of the state, said his agency has been "forced to scramble" as people are released with little notice, and sometimes without housing and services in place.

In small counties like his, there are few nonprofits or outside agencies to assist them, leaving probation departments to handle social service tasks, including finding housing, job placement and now even food deliveries. Reyman is unsure how much of that help his office will be able to provide.

"That just cuts off at the knees any plans to reintegrate people coming out," he said.

Reyman said his department has seen about seven releases so far and expects about that many in coming months, which are "huge numbers for us."

"This is a group of people that we would expect to get over the next six to 12 months, and they are all coming out in the next weeks," Reyman said. "The plan is changing on a daily basis."

Karen McDaniel, founder of Fighting for Families Impacted by Incarceration, which offers rides home and other help to those being released, said her organization has been overwhelmed by the need for their services.

Recently, she helped shuttle people from Wasco State Prison in Kern County after the facility released about 60 people over two days. McDaniel said prison officials suggested the men use Amtrak for transportation.

"Why in the world would you even consider dropping off any amount of formerly incarcerated people at Amtrak right now?" she said. "What are you even thinking? I had to mobilize tons of drivers to get out there to get these guys back home because we don't want them on public transportation."

 

She said she is frustrated that the corrections department has not provided funding or resources for organizations like hers, which form critical links in the reentry process.

"It is tremendous pressure," McDaniel said. "We shouldn't be the ones completely tasked by the state of California for getting all these releases home. It's really quite frankly astounding."

Corrections officials said inmates released to "quarantine status" are not permitted to take public transportation. But some who are not quarantined wonder if they should be.

On Thursday afternoon, Rod Thompson Sr. sat at the Amtrak station in the rural town of Hanford waiting for the 12:24 train to Bakersfield, hours after being released from Avenal State Prison in Kings County.

From there, he planned to take a bus to Los Angeles, and was hopeful he could get in touch with his parole officer before closing time to see if a quarantine hotel was possible.

Although Thompson tested positive for COVID-19 in May, suffering only mild symptoms, he was unsure if he still carried the virus and didn't want to infect others at the shared housing that was his other option.

"I want to self-quarantine again just to be safe," he said. "I have somewhere to reside ... but I don't feel comfortable going there right now because I don't know if I am contagious."

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