First State Prison Inmate Dies of COVID-19

The following article was originally published April 20, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

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Story by Emily Elena Dugdale




Reporter Roundup is a collaboration between PBS SoCal/KCET and KPCC/LAist to bring you the biggest headlines M-F about COVID-19. Watch the April 20 episode here.

The first inmate at a state prison has died of COVID-19 complications. He was incarcerated at the California Institution for Men in Chino.

The state prison system says the unidentified inmate died at an outside hospital on Sunday.

So far, 122 state prison inmates and 89 employees have tested positive, according to a live tracker maintained by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

To slow the spread of the virus, California has granted early release to 3,500 prisoners in the state system. It's also stopped the intake of new prisoners from county jails.

A mandatory 14-day modified program schedule was also implemented by CDCR in early April that shut down family visiting, limited legal visits, and called for a reduction of prisoner populations in day rooms, among other orders.

But inmates tell us they're still in crowded dorms with no way of social distancing.

Some say they've been asked to disable important medical equipment like CPAP machines used for sleep apnea, flagged as a risk for spreading COVID-19.

"A lot of inmates are concerned for their health," said Joe Anderson, who was recently released from Chino on parole.

More inmates must be released to stop additional deaths, argued Kate Chatfield with the reform group The Justice Collaborative.

"We're asking for people who have 18 months or less on their sentence to be released," she said. "It's beyond reasonable; it's necessary, it's required."

The California Institution for Men in Chino. | Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
The California Institution for Men in Chino. | Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Chatfield also says prisoners who are vulnerable to illness, elderly or deemed low risk should be released.

"People inside will need to be cared for out in the hospitals outside of the prison," she said. "And that will create a strain on the hospital system and the ICU beds."

statewide survey conducted by The Justice Collaborative and the think tank Data for Progress found a majority of voters want to reduce the incarcerated population to slow the spread of the virus.

Advocates are also calling for more widespread COVID-19 testing. The CDCR says it's monitoring inmates and taking their temperature several times a day.

Two inmates at federal prisons in California have also died, according to L.A. County Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer.

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