The Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Attorneys, staff and those incarcerated at the Richard J. Donovan state prison in San Diego County say officials are taking inadequate measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus – which they believe could be particularly deadly in the facility, which houses medically vulnerable patients.

An inability to social distance, inadequate hygiene in shared areas like showers and inconsistency in how different parts of the prison implement measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus are among the concerns highlighted.

“Some people feel like they’ve been given a possible death sentence,” said Penny Godbold, an attorney at Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld, who represents clients with disabilities incarcerated at Donovan.

There have been 89 confirmed coronavirus cases among staffers and 121 cases among inmates within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation statewide. So far, 18 inmates at Donovan have been tested and there have been no positive cases. But attorneys and staff are particularly concerned about a lack of precautionary measures at the facility, because it is a medical hub for the corrections system, and many people incarcerated there have medical issues, including diabetes and cancer, that could make them more vulnerable to the disease.

“(Inmates) [are] affraid [sic] that one of the staff will infect us like at other prisons,” wrote Devein Payne, who is currently incarcerated at Donovan, in a letter to Voice of San Diego.

Donovan is currently on a 14-day modified programming schedule where “inmate movement is limited to address the coronavirus spread,” wrote Dana Simas, a press secretary for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, in an e-mail.

“We take the health and safety of all those who live and work in our state prisons very seriously and have taken unprecedented steps to address COVID-19 within our institutions,” Simas wrote.

Donovan is split into different yards, which are physically separated. People from different yards don’t mix. Some are more like dorms, while other, higher-security yards have two-person cells. Because of the different nature of each yard, the measures being taken to guard against COVID-19 have been different, too, attorneys say. And some have been better than others.

In the high-security yard, people no longer eat together in one room, but have food brought to cells, said attorney Laura Sheppard, who has several clients in Donovan. In the lower-level yards that are more like dorms, inmates still eat together in a shared space, but fewer people are allowed in at once. There are still enough in each group to make social distancing difficult, she said.

In the dorm-like areas, people are restricted to their rooms for a few hours a day, but their doors remain unlocked so they can go to and from the shared showers.

Those shared spaces, like the showers and dining hall, are the most concerning places to many.

“Our shower stalls are deploreable [sic]!!!” wrote Payne in his letter. “No bleach, No durable cleaning equipment for the porters.”

Godbold said that even little things, like a communal beverage machine in the dining hall that everyone touches, can be dangerous.

“There needs to be thought of how to adjust all aspects of daily living,” Godbold said. “You still have to go to the window to get your pills from medical staff, and people are saying the pill line is normal. They’re not told to line up six feet apart. All those things are happening as normal.”

Sima said the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is trying to transfer people from shared dorm environments, since it is more difficult to impose social distancing in those settings, by “making creative use of vacant space within some institutions in order to house inmates in places where we can increase physical distancing. We are focusing on creating eight-person pods of inmates within these vacant spaces where they can be housed six-feet apart between groups.”

Dining and recreation happens “one housing unit at a time and with staggered schedules to allow for greater social distancing and cleaning of areas between each use,” she said.

The agency is also providing alcohol-based hand sanitizer via sanitizer dispenser stations for housing units, dining halls, work change areas and other areas where sinks and soap are not immediately available, Simas said.

But attorneys said those efforts haven’t assuaged inmates’ fears.

“The people that we’ve talked to are very scared,” Godbold said. “I think there’s a lot of concern about whether or not enough is being done to keep them safe.”

Sheppard and Godbold said that while staff has been issued some personal protective equipment, their clients say they haven’t seen it used consistently.

“One of the inmates was being put on the phone with me and said, ‘the sergeant in here wasn’t wearing a mask,’” Sheppard said.

One staff member at Donovan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear retribution, said they don’t believe enough is being done to protect the incarcerated. Staff members were eventually issued some personal protective equipment, but often they just get one mask to use indefinitely, they said.

“There is frustration all around,” the staff member said.

The staff member said the facility has continued to receive transfers from other state institutions that have infections among staff or inmates. They also noted that common spaces for staff, like bathrooms, are filthy.

“I’ve experienced a very slow, reactionary process to COVID-19 in handling a lot of the precautionary actions to keep us all of safe, including the patients, in Corrections and Rehabilitation,” said Chelsea Harris, a regional representative for AFSCME Local 2620, the union that represents state health and social services workers across California, including those who work for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Harris also said she’s heard about shortages in personal protective equipment from staff members statewide.

Simas said that all inmates and staff members across the state, including Donovan, have been provided reusable cloth masks “to wear at all times.” She also said that the state would not move anyone who has tested positive for coronavirus or who is in quarantine or under observation as a potential case to other institutions. Simas said that all Department of Corrections facilities, including Donovan, have been conducting screenings and taking temperatures of everyone who enters. Since March 21, all new inmates are required to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

“This is something that we’ve never dealt with before,” Harris said. “Of course, I can see why management was slow to react and slow to provide us with a solution because this was something we weren’t prepared for.”

Attorneys acknowledge that the state has implemented precautionary measures to stem the spread of the virus, but they said there’s reason to be troubled by those efforts, too.

“One concern, honestly, is that their legal rights are being impaired by the need for these pandemic precautions,” said Sheppard. “If our system were better designed, we would be able to do both, but now we can’t protect them from dying without taking away their due process rights.”

People who are incarcerated still have legal rights guaranteeing their access to legal materials, to recreation time, to communication with friends and family and more, said Godbold.

“It is a real challenge right now to try to figure out how to meet those constitutional rights and keep people safe because there are obviously hundreds of people in a building, so how do you get them out of their cell and honor those rights, while trying to keep them six feet away from each other?” Godbold said.

The law library at Donovan has been shut down, Sheppard said. Inmates can make requests in writing to have legal materials printed and sent to them, but they can’t actually look things up in books.

Sheppard said she’s also only allowed to have telephone visits with her clients if they have a parole hearing or a court case within six months. One of her clients was set to have a parole hearing at the early onset of the pandemic, before the court had implemented video hearings. The case hasn’t been rescheduled, and she hasn’t been able to speak with him, she said.

Godbold and Sheppard said that reducing the prison population is the only way to keep people in prison safe without obstructing their constitutional rights.

Simas described some of the statewide efforts to reduce the prison population during the pandemic. Through the expedited release of 3,500 offenders with up to 60 days or less to serve and other measures, the department has reduced its institution population by more than 7,000 inmates, she said.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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