A long pattern of institutional abuse and neglect is now putting thousands at risk of another COVID-19 outbreak

This photo of SATF-10 Facility A, Building 2 Dorm, Section A was taken on July 28, 2008, when the prison was even more overcrowded than it is now and used as evidence in a lawsuit. – Photo: Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP

by Oakland Abolition and Solidarity 

Corcoran, Calif. – A culture of carelessness, abuse and neglect is now putting people in the state’s largest prison at risk of COVID-19. On Sept. 3, an entire housing unit section in the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF) F Yard Section 1 was cleared to make COVID-19 quarantine housing. Eyewitness testimonies from incarcerated people detail several ways in which this move was conducted with total disregard for health and safety practices. This is business as usual for SATF, which during this pandemic will likely result in widespread illness, injury and death.

SATF stands out in California’s prison system as a site of chronic neglect. Over the course of years there have been multiple documented complaints, reports, lawsuits and corresponding inadequate state responses to toxic conditions and disrepair. 

Reports include that the SATF roof is leaking in at least two housing units. When one leak source, a cooling unit, was removed, it left incarcerated people sweltering in the summer heat and the roof further vulnerable to inclement weather and elements. In past months, water has pooled in people’s cells, creating toxic black mold in at least two housing units. All of these structural problems occurred well before the onset of a global pandemic.

As of Sept. 7, 2020, there were 141 active cases, 139 of which were from within the previous 14 days. And, as of Sept. 15, 2020, there were 182 active cases, 95 of which were from the previous 14 days. 

Currently, cases of COVID-19 are growing rapidly, and prisoners’ risk factors are drastically increased by the following conditions that have been confirmed by several people inside:

  • Transfers of people with positive COVID-19 cases to housing units without positive cases, causing further crowding and minimizing peoples’ ability to socially distance.
  • Prisoners are given masks very infrequently and they are often made out of unbreathable material. Mask policies for staff are not being enforced.
  • Kitchen workers are being housed with people who have tested positive, putting the whole facility at risk.
  • There is little to no access to hand sanitizer or disinfectant for phones and other common surfaces.
  • Social distancing guidelines are not being used by staff or prisoners.
  • Information is not given to other inmates about positive cases in their housing unit. They are not even provided with the CDCr memos related to COVID-19 that the public has access to.

In the words of our incarcerated friend, who we must call No. 7 in this document to safeguard against retaliation for speaking out:  

“It appears as if they have set the stage for what is supposed to be a coronavirus-free facility up for an impending outbreak, just like the one which occurred at San Quentin. Giving consideration that this institution is the largest of all the California institutions, an outbreak at this facility will have devastating consequences, wherein this facility or the institution in its entirety is not equipped to address such a pandemic or put in safeguards to ensure the reasonable safety and protection of the prisoners from the future risks of harm that are prevalent within this environment.”

The intent of this effort is not only to stop the next COVID-19 outbreak disaster story, but to firmly establish that CDCr prisons systemwide have been a disaster for the past several decades.

Since the COVID-19 global pandemic began, the response of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCr) has been abysmal. The now infamous statewide spread was a direct cause of CDCr transfers from the SoCal’s California Institute for Men, to Avenal State Prison in the Central Valley, and then to San Quentin, just north of San Francisco. 

CDCr is now scrambling to adhere to court-ordered practices regarding quarantines and transfers from the ongoing Coleman and Plata class action case. These movements are having severe effects, not because of the physical transfers themselves, but due to the way these transfers are conducted, with total lack of regard for human life, health and safety by both the institutions and by CDCr. To date, 60 incarcerated people and two prison guards have passed away from COVID-19. 

As family, friends and advocates, we are sending this to multiple members of the press and news outlets directly in order to spread this information as widely as possible. Too often, when incarcerated people inside issue grievances or voice concern, they are laughed at, ignored or retaliated against. When supporters on the outside call or write, we are given the runaround or a generic Public Information Office Statement.

The intent of this effort is not only to stop the next COVID-19 outbreak disaster story, but to firmly establish that CDCr prisons systemwide have been a disaster for the past several decades. There is no reasonable way to address a global pandemic let alone any issue concerning human rights within these prisons. The only real solutions are mass releases of people who are confined in these deadly institutions, NOW.

CSATF basic facts 

  • Yard Types: Sensitive Needs Yards (SNY) including Protective Custody (PC) and Enhanced Outpatient Program (EOP)
  • Population: 4,501. This is 131.5 percent over the official bed capacity of 3,424, as of Sept. 9, 2020. Corcoran SATF is currently the largest prison in the CDCr system by population.

Moves and transfers

Seemingly in accordance with the recent Coleman and Plata Order to Set Aside Isolation and Quarantine Space from July 7, 2020, several transfers have been made. However, in practice, the transfers are creating several complications. Here are some insights into how the moves are happening, as observed from people experiencing it first hand. Names have been changed to numbers to protect those inside from retaliation:

  • Prisoner No. 1: “As of this moment, [CDCr has] moved 10 infected prisoners from a Level IV facility onto our yard, which up until now has been relatively free of any outbreaks of the virus.”
  • Prisoner No. 3: “They decided they were going to have one building here at CSATF for quarantine, which sounds like a good idea. The part that didn’t make sense is to make room for the moved inmates all over the prison from different yards. On my yard, Facility [X], we received over 50 inmates. None have been tested and all are from Facility E, where they now have the ‘quarantine building.’”
  • Prisoner No. 4: “Yes, there are folks being transferred in from other prisons and from other yards. Enough to notice, but in numbers below normal. About a month back quite a few folks were removed from E yard, quarantine yard, over to D yard.”
  • Prisoner No. 6: “CDCr are still mixing people from separate buildings, which is against Director Connie Gipson’s signed order.”
  • Prisoner No. 7: “Currently, there is a mixed-custody populace of Level II, III and IV people being held within the F facility. Administrators have been using the Men’s Advisory Council (MAC) to disseminate false and misleading information, even going as far as to suggest that there are no cases of coronavirus at this facility. The evidence has shown otherwise, including the fact that in-cell feeding of the designated section has commenced and medical staff have been in constant attendance of the Building 1 housing unit.”
  • Prisoner No. 7: “Last week, admin cleared out an entire section of Building 1 – A-section – designating this area as emergency bedding for persons who test positive for COVID-19. As a result of this alteration, a compacting of the cells has occurred, where now the safety measures for social distancing of 6 feet have been taken completely away.”

Mask wearing

Complications with the yard transfers are exacerbated by the fact that prison guards and other staff have been consistently observed to not be wearing masks or adhering to social distance protocols. The July 1, 2020, directive requiring face coverings for employees, issued by retiring CDCr Secretary Ralph Diaz, has repeatedly been violated and unenforced. 

Consequences including verbal and administrative write ups can happen to prisoners who don’t wear masks. However, we have also had system-wide reports of masks being made with the same unbreathable material as the prison jumpsuits, which makes them extremely uncomfortable and discourages their use.

  • “We were all issued cloth masks and encouraged to wear them. Some staff do and some don’t, same with inmates.”
  • “The failure of people to wear masks is tolerated. It is more uncommon to see folks actually wearing masks. If brass shows up everyone looks good. It is all a facade. Cameras on the yard show it.”
  • Prisoner No. 5: “We haven’t received new masks. The last time we got new masks was in July, so we have to wash our old mask.”
  • Prisoner No. 7: “There was an anonymous donor of PPE masks which were to be distributed to the population. A disclaimer was set forth stating that the masks were a generic version of N95 masks but were better than the masks that have been distributed to the entire population, which were made through the PIA [Prison Industry Board] using repurposed clothing materials which are normally used to construct pants and jumpsuits. The masks have been only distributed to workers. Most free staff, including officers, do not wear masks. Same with the lieutenants and sergeants, yet the prisoners are being commanded to do so whenever occupying the dayrooms, entering and exiting the housing units or attending appointments.”

Social distance violations

  • Prisoner No. 1: “It’s a theater – lines painted in the yard, etc., but nobody uses it.”
  • Prisoner No. 6: “Staff are often within 2 feet of each other without social distancing or wearing masks. They only enforce social distancing when it benefits them.”
  • Prisoner No. 8: “In Section 2, [CDCr staff] had a man taken out who tested positive, then left a remainder of men in his cell, all who have been exposed. It’s a matter of time before they all test positive, as they continue to walk around Section 2.”

“The staff don’t inform us of any new cases. The only way we would find out if they are sick is if the police packs up their property and quarantines them.”

Contamination

  • Prisoner No. 7: “The workers who operate the kitchen are housed within the same infectious building are yet attending their work assignments.” 
  • Prisoner No. 1: “The same trays are used between inmates. [Staff] do have real disinfectant but no one has access to it. When I get off the phone, I don’t have anything before or after to make sure it’s safe.”
  • Prisoner No. 4: “Hand sanitizer is, generally, not provided to prisoners, although staff have an endless supply for themselves.”
  • Prisoner No. 5: “There is no hand sanitizer being passed to inmates. Only the cops have their own sanitizer.”
  • Prisoner No. 7: “The cleaning of the housing units is the same as before the pandemic, with the addition of periodic sprayings of the surface areas, such as tables, phones and door handles. The treatments of spraying consist of a quick misting with a spray bottle by a porter.” 
  • Prisoner No. 8: “Even the people who work in the kitchen don’t want to do with the utensils that have to be washed because the men who should be using disposable utensils rather than risk infecting the prison are the men who are positive.”

Communication

Communications come in the form of posters and videos, but very little practical information makes it to those incarcerated at Corcoran’s SATF. 

  • Prisoner No. 4: “We aren’t informed if anyone, staff or prisoner, is removed for being COVID positive.”
  • Prisoner No. 5: “The staff don’t inform us of any new cases. The only way we would find out if they are sick is if the police packs up their property and quarantines them.”
  • Prisoner No. 6: “SATF administrators are withholding COVID-19 memorandums from prisoners, though they are mandated to be posted per CDCr policy.”

“All things that are good for the spirit were shut down in this prison.”

Grievances

CDCr has an infamously complex and byzantine grievance system, as if the violence of the prison is in direct proportion to how much paperwork there is. To expect a trail of records of individual grievances as a legitimate process for effective prisoner organizing would at this point be a hollow task for two reasons: first, prisoners expect retaliation from filing grievances; second, the system is filled with hollow, arbitrary and callous bureaucratization that renders attempts totally redirected, denied on technicalities, lost or ignored. At the bare minimum a grievance process that goes through all three levels will take 180 days.

Our friend Prisoner No. 2 sums this up perfectly in their statement: “If we try to do a 602, it gets lost or they say that they never got it and then take it out on us by searching our cell or taking things from us. We really need help in here. Can you or someone do something for us?”

General

  • Prisoner No. 1: “All things that are good for the spirit were shut down in this prison.”
  • Prisoner No. 6: “Conditions in here are terrible and medical is failing drastically. If you are believed to have come in contact with another person who may have COVID-19 you are shipped off somewhere and kept housed for 14 days, then you come back or you don’t.”
  • Prisoner No. 7: “The housing buildings have a shared HVAC system that has been poorly maintained and does not provide adequate circulation. The ventilation vents are extremely dirty, and when in use the smell of spored [sic] materials, and mold permeates the air.”
  • Prisoner No. 8: “Right now, we’re surviving by the grace of the almighty.”

Oakland Abolition and Solidarity (ABOSOL), previously Oakland IWOC, can be reached by mail at P.O. Box 12594, Oakland, CA 94604, and by email at eric@oaklandabosol.org.