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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

Some say the number of inmate deaths might be even higher than reported because not all causes have been determined. In a statement, corrections department spokeswoman Dana Simas said that the agency has a "review and reporting process to verify if the death is COVID-19 related" before adding it to the official total.

Those concerned include relatives of inmates at Lancaster, which has seen its COVID-related death toll soar to 10 in the last month.

It's also where Little, who admitted to killing as many as 90 women, died as he was serving a life sentence. Records show Little died of pneumonia Dec. 30 after contracting COVID-19 in a housing block where many others were ill.

More than half the inmates at the Lancaster facility, about 1,400, have become infected — a rate more than four times greater than that of Los Angeles County, where the prison is located. The number of active infections has dropped in recent weeks to 64 but sources said that coincides with less testing. About 15% of inmates in Lancaster have been tested in the past 14 days, according to state figures.

Many inmates and family members say failures by the Department of Corrections have enabled the outbreaks, pointing out that with prisons on lockdown since the spring, guards and other staff are likely the ones carrying the virus inside.

Johnson said that her sister's cellmate tested positive for COVID-19, but was left inside the cell with Tomiekia for 12 hours. "It's just really bad," Johnson said of conditions inside the prison.


Simas said there have been no reports of delays in moving COVID-19 positive inmates away from healthy ones.

"All COVID-19 positive patients at [the Chowchilla facility] have been moved in a timely manner in response to the pandemic" and rehoused in an isolation unit, Simas said.

The correctional officers, medical staff and others working inside the 35 state prisons aren't faring much better than the inmates. More than 13,000 of the 66,000 employees have become infected. At present, more than 2,800 are positive

The Corrections Department has increased its oversight of staff compliance with safety mandates, requiring weekly testing and the wearing of a surgical mask during work hours. Failure to do so can result in discipline including suspension without pay.


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