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

Attorneys, those incarcerated at Richard J. Donovan prison and their family members say prison officials have failed to protect the people in their care and to contain COVID-19 in the facility, which has experienced 18 deaths – one of the deadliest outbreaks in the state prison system. Donovan houses more than 3,500 people, and with over 1,000 confirmed cases, nearly one in three incarcerated people has tested positive for the virus.

Those incarcerated said that Donovan staff loosely followed COVID-19 safety procedures, and rarely enforced masks for staff and inmates. COVID-positive inmates say nurses do not sanitize their equipment after each patient and COVID-positive inmates are often left to mingle and infect others. Attorneys and court documents allege persistent staff carelessness facilitated the spread of the virus.

“Many people have described feeling like they have been given a death sentence in [the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] watching COVID unfold in the prisons,” said Penny Godbold, an attorney at Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld who represents clients with disabilities incarcerated at Donovan. “Clients have described being utterly terrified of COVID-19 in their housing units.”

Godbold is representing clients in a class action lawsuit filed before the onset of COVID-19, but is challenging the prisons’ COVID-19 policies because they impact the health of those clients.

She said the state could have done more to keep incarcerated people safe and prevent the spread of the virus.

Attorneys, including Godbold, Donovan staff and those incarcerated have been sounding the alarm since the start of the pandemic that an outbreak would be particularly deadly in the facility.

Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Terri Hardy said California Correctional Health Care Services, which provides inmate health care services, and the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility have been “strongly committed to responding to this public health emergency and to protecting both staff and the incarcerated population.”

Mary Estrada’s husband has stage 4 cirrhosis of the liver and is incarcerated at Donovan. He tested positive for COVID-19 in December, and his health has been steadily declining ever since, she said.

“They’re not animals, they’re human beings, and they’re somebody’s family members,” Estrada said. “They are in there and they need to take care of them.”

Estrada said her husband has been held in other prisons, but “Donovan is the worst.”

PPE and Enforcement Issues

Celia Figueroa’s brother has been incarcerated at Donovan for a little more than three years. He caught COVID-19 in December.

Figueroa said her brother and other inmates were only recently given masks after most of them had already gotten sick. Guards interact with both COVID-positive inmates as well as healthy inmates, yet some still do not wear masks, her brother told her.

Court documents back up these claims. The Department of Corrections, at the direction of a judge, provided reports to Godbold’s law firm in early December detailing the ways staff did not comply with rules about face coverings and physical distance requirements.

The reports document 521 such incidents among custody staff and 210 incidents among medical staff across 35 prisons. Nearly all of the incidents reported had to do with failing to follow mask-wearing requirements.

Staff who did not meet the requirements were given verbal warnings, and statewide dozens of nurses and at least six primary care providers received further reprimand for violating face-covering mandates, the documents show.

Additional reports provided by the state to Godbold’s firm in December reveal that Donovan had the highest number of staff of all Department of Corrections facilities who were written up for failing to meet mask requirements and to social distance.

“All inmates have been provided numerous cloth facial barriers, hand sanitizer, and cleaning supplies, with additional supplies provided upon request,” Hardy, the agency spokeswoman, said in an email. Hardy also said that staff who work in the housing units where people are isolated due to COVID-19 are required to wear N95 masks and other protective gear, such as gloves.

Inadequate and Delayed Testing

Testing has also played a role in how badly the pandemic hit Donovan.

On Jan 7, a 51-year-old Donovan inmate died from complications of COVID-19. According to court documents, prison medical doctors ordered three COVID tests for the inmate on Dec. 11, 18 and 28. None was ever done. On Jan. 8, a 63-year-old Donovan inmate died. Prison doctors ordered that he be tested on Dec. 14 and 29. Neither were done.

Donovan had hundreds of orders for COVID-19 testing in December that had not been done on time or at all, according to court documents detailing patients’ medical records.

Burnell Kelly is incarcerated at Donovan and tested positive in December. He has mostly recovered from his symptoms but said he was never retested after his 14-day quarantine.

Kelly said in an interview that he is upset at the way staff is mishandling COVID inside the prison. One of his complaints was that staff knowingly allowed a COVID-positive inmate to mingle with and infect others without quarantining him. A prison spokeswoman did not respond to a question about the claim.

Court documents also detail that 52 staff at California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison Corocan, a facility in Northern California, refused COVID-19 tests, but were allowed to continue working. Lawyers representing inmates asked for records of staff refusals at other prisons, but the state prison agency did not provide any, according to the documents.

Lax Quarantine Procedures

Estrada said after her husband tested positive for COVID-19, he was forced to quarantine with his cellmate, who was negative for the virus at the time. With nowhere to social distance, his cellmate eventually tested positive.

“Donovan doesn’t care about our loved ones, they make up their own rules,” she said. “They do what they want to do and it’s sickening.”

Court documents similarly claim “patients who tested negative for COVID were kept in their cell with cellmates who tested positive, despite requests to be quarantined elsewhere.”

Donovan continued mixing housing units’ weeks after the outbreak began, according to court records. On Jan. 8, the Department of Corrections and the California Correctional Health Care Services essentially “confirmed that co-locating positive patients with those not known to be positive had occurred for weeks in housing units at [California State Prison, Los Angeles County] and [Richard J. Donovan], and continued at RJD,” according to records provided to Godbold’s firm.

Alex Acuna, Kelly’s cellmate, said in an interview that guards “were threatening them that if they didn’t move or comply, they would be sent to the hole for not moving or refusing a bed assignment,” referring to solitary confinement.

The Department of Corrections disputes that account.

“Forcible movement due to COVID-19 exposure or retaliation for refusing to move is against departmental policy,” Hardy wrote in an email. “No disciplinary action was imposed on any inmates at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility who refused to move locations in an effort to protect their health and safety.”

Hardy said if the state identified a presumably vulnerable inmate who could be protected by a housing move because of potential COVID-19 exposure, incarcerated individuals were given an explanation for the movement.

“If the inmate still refused a move, they were required to sign a waiver acknowledging they understood the risks of not moving,” she wrote.

Staff in several housing units have allowed COVID-positive inmates to mix with those who had not tested positive during phone access periods, showers, medication lines and food service, according to court documents.

“When necessary, RJD has limited movement of both staff and the population between and throughout the institutions,” Hardy said via email in response to those concerns.

Many inmates have refused to relocate or transfer to another housing unit. State prison officials said they would continue to educate and encourage compliance with quarantine and isolation measures, including movement, but would not forcefully extract individuals who refused to relocate, according to court documents.

Godbold said that many of her clients are reluctant to move cells because they may be moved to crowded spaces or are concerned with potentially losing their property.

“If you are COVID-positive you are asked, in some cases, to move out of a cell and move into a crowded, cramped dorm or gym-like setting,” she said.

Figueroa said her brother told her staff was going to move inmates who tested positive into the block he stayed in. Several incarcerated men went on a hunger strike at the end of January, she said, to protest the movement because they feared they would contract COVID-19. A prison spokeswoman did not respond to a question about the claim.

“A lot of their friends died … in the hospital or in prison, without being able to see their family at all,” Figueroa said.

Lack of Medical Treatment and Staff Shortages

According to Department of Corrections statistics, 517 staff members at Donovan have tested positive for the virus. Staff shortages led to issues with accessing medical treatment, according to court documents and family members of those incarcerated in the facility.

“The staff was afraid to come into work and pretty much abandoned their post and the inmates were left in their cell,” Estrada said. “They were not getting the medical help that they should have gotten.”

Court documents noted that statewide, “staff remain the most significant vector for introducing COVID-19 into the state prison system. As of Jan. 12, more than 2,500 staff were out with active cases of COVID-19, and nearly 14,000 had contracted COVID-19 since Mar. [2020].”

Godbold said the state should have anticipated staffing shortages and planned accordingly.

Acuna, who tested positive for COVID-19 in December, said he still experiences shortness of breath and fatigue. He suffers from asthma, which has made his recovery harder.

Acuna said he complained after being repeatedly blocked by a prison nurse who would not let him see a doctor. A prison spokeswoman did not respond to a question about the claim.

“I was complaining about the lack of medical attention that we have been getting,” he said in an interview. “I was complaining about my post-COVID symptoms and that I’ve been told there is nothing they can do. I feel like I’m being censored in a way because I’m not getting the help or acknowledgment that I’m going through these symptoms.”

Families say that inmates are rarely given any treatment and have been left to try and recover on their own.

Hardy said that Donovan, “like all our facilities, follows protocols per public health and health care guidance for the incarcerated population.”

Becky Dovenbarger, Acuna’s fiancé, said she was frustrated by the lack of medical care and protection he was receiving. She said her fiancé told her that nurses would try to persuade inmates to not get their vitals tested and were not cleaning their equipment properly.

“What are you doing to protect my loved one?” she said, questioning the way Donovan has handled the outbreak. “What are you doing to contain this? What are you doing?”

If a COVID-positive inmate does receive further treatment, guards travel with that person to the hospital and come back without being tested, Figueroa said.

Courses Continuing, Poor Ventilation and Inmate Transfers

Alicia Jetter’s husband was taking a welding course inside the prison. When the pandemic hit, courses were supposed to have been canceled to prevent the spread of the virus, according to the Department of Corrections website.

Her husband, who has not yet tested positive for COVID-19, was worried about his health and declined to take the course. She said he was threatened with a writeup by staff if he did not participate.

A prison spokeswoman did not respond to a question about the claim.

“A couple of months into the pandemic, they wanted him to go back to class, but what’s to say the instructor doesn’t have COVID?” Jetter said. “We already know they are not using precaution, how else did COVID get inside?”

Poor ventilation could also have facilitated the spread of the virus.

“Thousands are housed in common air space settings, including many who are vulnerable to severe illness or death if they contract COVID-19,” court documents read. “Copious amounts of outside air in many housing units is all but impossible, given the lack of open windows and ventilation limitations, meaning the virus can circulate in the air.”

Inmate transfers have also led to major outbreaks in state prisons since late last year. Families are signing petitions in hopes Gov. Gavin Newsom will stop transfers and release incarcerated ones back to their families.

Estrada and other families of incarcerated inmates have protested outside of Donovan three times. She said they want to hold the state accountable for its practices and the harm they’ve caused. She believes other families are afraid to speak out, for fear their incarcerated family members will be retaliated against.

“I think the biggest downfall in dealing with the prison is we not only don’t have a voice but we don’t have a means to communicate or dialogue with people from a humanistic point of view,” Kelly said. “We do need a voice behind these walls.”

Where Vaccinations Stand

The Department of Corrections and California Correctional Health Care Services has said it plans to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all of its employees, as well as those incarcerated.

Hardy said that as of March 21, 26,488 staff members and 45,456 incarcerated individuals have received at least a first round of vaccines.

“The ultimate goal is to provide the greatest level of protection to staff, the population and surrounding communities,” Hardy wrote in an email.

The California Correctional Health Care Services did not respond when asked how many inmates have been vaccinated at Donovan.

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