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Serial killer, respected guard and many others killed by COVID-19 surge in California prisons

Richard Winton, Anita Chabria, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Despite repeated assurances that corrections officials have made progress in controlling spread of the coronavirus, California prisons are in the midst of a deadly surge.

At least 46 inmates have died from COVID-19 since Dec. 25, along with two staff members. They include one of America's most prolific serial killers, Samuel Little, and Officer George Solis, a husband and father of two who died on Christmas Day.

"The prison system is not doing their part to keep them safe," said Terressa Johnson, whose sister is an inmate at the women's facility in Chowchilla, where there are more than 300 active cases. "In the last six months, it's gotten worse."

More than 160 people have died in the prison system from causes attributed to COVID-19, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, with nearly 44,000 infected. Since a crackdown on staff safety protocols in recent weeks, active infections have fallen by about half compared to a highpoint in December, when coronavirus cases topped more than 10,000.

Still, the prison system has a rate of confirmed cases of 461 per 1,000 inmates, with new infections recorded daily. The overall California rate is about 69 per 1,000 residents.

While much of California is experiencing a surge, there were hopes the prison system could do better because officials can restrict access and control the environment. But since a massive outbreak at San Quentin over the summer in which 28 inmates died, four other institutions have logged double-digit death tolls.


The state prison bureaucracy has come under intense criticism for the events at San Quentin — the outbreak there began after infected inmates from the California Institute for Men at Chino were transferred to the Marin facility without adequate safety measures — and for failing to control spread after learning harsh lessons in past months.

This latest increase has raised concerns that officials are continuing to put prisoners and staff at risk.

Nearly 4,700 new cases of COVID-19 have been reported in prisons in the past two weeks. Seventeen facilities have diagnosed a hundred or more cases in that time.

Since late December, the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo has seen its number of positive cases surge, with 1,017 in the last two weeks — about a third of the prison.


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