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A death row inmate who was found dead had coronavirus. Nearly half the cases in California prisons are in the same facility

Andrew Cuomo

Richard Stitely had spent nearly 30 years on death row when the pandemic hit California’s San Quentin State Prison.

Last week, Stitely, 71, was found dead in his cell, marking the first known death linked to coronavirus inside the California prison with the largest outbreak of Covid-19 in the state.

More than a third of incarcerated people in San Quentin have tested positive for the virus and nearly half of coronavirus cases throughout the state’s prison system are currently there, according to a tally from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

As of Thursday, there were at least 1,345 active cases in the facility and 2,783 cases in the state, the CDCR said. The jail houses about 3,400 detainees and it’s at 112% of it’s capacity.

Authorities are still trying to determine the cause and manner of Stitely’s death, as well as another death row inmate who died on Wednesday. Joseph Safarino Cordova, 75, was found unresponsive in his cell and he had no signs of trauma, according to the CDCR. It’s still unclear whether Cordova had tested positive for the virus.

San Quentin is among numerous prisons and jails across the country that have become hotbeds for the virus. In the past months, outbreaks in Colorado, Arkansas and Ohio prisons made up for a large number of each of those state’s total cases.

But San Quentin had not seen a spike of cases until inmates from the California Institute for Men in Chino — where thousands of people have tested positive — were transferred to the facility last month, state Sen. Nancy Skinner has said.

“The process of transferring incarcerated people from Chino, which had one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates, to San Quentin, which had no known cases, raises serious questions about CDCR’s management of the pandemic,” Skinner said in a statement.

“While state government overall has done a good job managing the coronavirus crisis, the same care and attention has not been applied to California’s largest congregate settings: state prisons. We can and must do better.”

Earlier this week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the cause of the outbreak is being investigated, but that it appears the inmate transfer was a factor.

Adnan Khan, executive director for Re:Store Justice, a criminal justice reform advocacy group, said it’s impossible for detainees to follow social distancing protocols and other guidelines by the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention.

He spent four years in San Quentin housed in North Block, where 800 people share 12 collect call phones and 20 shower heads in the communal bathroom.

“The shower heads are about a foot apart from each other, people get splashed, people cough and spit. It’s unavoidable,” Khan told CNN.

“There isn’t anything they can do,” he added. “You can wash your hands, you could put on a mask but you’re in a closed space.”

Dana Simas, a CDCR spokeswoman, said corrections officials have implemented multiple strategies to control the spread of the virus in including, suspending intakes from jails, increasing testing and mandating all inmates and staff to wear masks.

In San Quentin, Simas said, more efforts are underway and officials have created a “unified command center” of medical custody, emergency management and infectious disease experts from multiple agencies to coordinate the response to coronavirus in the facility.

The outbreak has impacted more than 100 employees at San Quentin who have tested positive in the past weeks, CDCR says. On Thursday, the department said correctional and health care staff from other facilities will arrive at San Quentin to fill vacant posts for at least 30 days.

As the outbreak continues at San Quentin, Khan said he’s spoken with many detainees who are terrified about the impacts of the virus and desperate for help.

“People who are incarcerated have been stigmatized that they are less than human. And therefore they’re, they don’t matter,” Khan said. “The truth is, there are grandparents in prison, there are grandchildren in prison.”

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