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Throwing A Spotlight On Women Prison Inmates' Coronavirus Fears

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The following article was originally published April 29, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

Story by Emily Elena Dugdale

Lashauna Blanks is an inmate at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona. She has a job washing the prison ambulance and other vehicles that transport sick inmates to the hospital.

There's no way to say for sure, but Blanks fears she gave the virus to her cellmate.

"There's over a thousand women in here, and it just so happens that my roommate gets COVID-19," she told us in a phone interview. "That's just crazy."

Blanks — incarcerated since 2012 for voluntary manslaughter and slated for parole in a year — said she was informed about her cellmate's illness and quarantined two days after she disappeared from their cell.

Still, Blanks was not tested, per state prison policy. Neither was fellow inmate April Harris, who lives on the same floor.

"They took our temperatures twice a day, slammed us down, brought our food and our medication to the doors," said Harris, who's been behind bars for more than 26 years for second degree murder. She said it was weeks before she was able to use the phone and pick up items at the prison commissary.

California Correctional Health Care Services policy, developed by medical experts following CDC recommendations, is to only test close contacts of positive cases if they develop symptoms of the virus, or if there's a significant outbreak at a prison.

Still, Harris and Blanks feel overshadowed by the higher numbers of cases and more media attention at men's prisons experiencing larger outbreaks.

The California Institution for Women in Corona. | Courtesy Of The California Department Of Corrections And Rehabilitation
The California Institution for Women in Corona. | Courtesy Of The California Department Of Corrections And Rehabilitation

'IT'S PATRIARCHY. IT'S SEXISM.'

Romarilyn Ralston spent 23 years incarcerated herself and is now the program director for Project Rebound, a program that assists formerly incarcerated people at Cal State Fullerton.

"It's this invisible population behind bars," Ralston said of female prisoners. "Let's just keep it real: It's patriarchy. It's sexism."

"Women are still considered second-class citizens, and when we become incarcerated, we're forgotten," she said.

There are over 5,000 female inmates in the state prison system, with the vast majority at CIW and the Central California Women's Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla.

'A TICKING TIME BOMB?'

Only 17 of CIW's 1,566 inmates have been tested for COVID-19, along with four of CCWF's 2,689 prisoners.

Those ratios are not dissimilar from most of the men's state prisons.

But Blanks and Harris are worried, given the relative lack of attention paid to women's prisons.

"I feel like we could be sitting on a ticking time bomb right now with so many more people affected that we don't know," Harris said.

Ralston of Project Rebound said she's also keeping a close eye on the number of cases among staff at women's prisons. As of Wednesday, four employees in the two largest women's facilities had tested positive.

"As their numbers go up, our numbers will go up," she said.

There are more than 113,000 male state prison inmates.

While there are far fewer women prisoners, data from the prison reform nonprofit The Prison Policy Institute shows that women's incarceration has grown at twice the rate of men since the 1980s.

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