LOS ANGELES - Following Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s announcement that some inmates would be released early, federal judges will consider whether the same will be implemented statewide to reduce the jail population amid the coronavirus crisis.
Advocates and attorneys for inmates held an emergency meeting Thursday before three federal judges presented them with a range of proposals, which includes a mass release of inmates to the use of empty buildings owned by the state to temporarily house inmates.
However, the state is pushing back the idea. Lawyers representing Gov. Gavin Newsom argue that letting prisoners out in droves could endanger the state’s health system. They suggested that prisons should be given the opportunity to socially distance first. They also noted that state prisons have already canceled visitations and are screening all correctional officers and prison employees upon entering.
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While the court-appointed Chief of Prison Medical Care has said he support an “immediate substantial reduction” in the prison population, he wants the focus to be on inmates who have homes and families to be released to.
On Thursday, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) announced they are “amplifying actions to protect staff and inmates at the state’s institutions by implementing additional measures to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
Officials are working to increase physical space to allow for physical distancing and making it possible for inmates to self-isolate if they are suspected of having the virus.
CDCR officials say their plan will expedite the parole transition for eligible inmates “who have 60 days or less to serve on their sentences and are not currently serving time for a violent crime as defined by law, a sex offense, or domestic violence.”
“We do not take these new measures lightly. Our first commitment at CDCR is ensuring safety – of our staff, of the incarcerated population, of others inside our institutions, and of the community at large,” said CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz. “However, in the face of a global pandemic, we must consider the risk of COVID-19 infection as a grave threat to safety, too.”
According to CDCR officials, the measures include:
• Mandatory verbal and temperature screenings for staff before they enter any institutions and other CDCR work sites.
• Suspension of intake from county jails, projected to reduce the population by 3,000 within 30 days.
• Suspension of visitation; inmates will get additional free phone calls to their loved ones, made available through a partnership with inmate telephone network provider Global Tel Link (GTL).
• Suspension of access by volunteers and rehabilitative program providers.
• Suspension of inmate movement, other than for critical purposes.
• Measures to support increased physical distancing, including reducing the number of inmates who use common spaces at the same time.
• Reinforced commitment to hygiene both institutional and personal, including greater availability of soap and hand sanitizer.
• Developed comprehensive health care guidelines based on CDC and CDPH recommendations for correctional settings, which include procedures for infection control, assessment, testing, treatment, proper use of PPE and quarantine/isolation. Deployed educational materials for staff on the new guidelines, including posters, quick reference pocket guides, webinars and websites.
• Modified the delivery of non-emergent health care procedures such as routine dentals cleanings to redirect supplies of PPE. Created a network among all state-managed facilities to redirect PPE as needed.
• Created handouts, posters and continually updated video messaging for the population about COVID-19 and what CDCR and CCHCS is doing to respond to the virus.
Department officials estimated that up to 3,500 prisoners are eligible for early release to parole.