The transfer of inmates led to a prison outbreak in rural California county

For months, rural Lassen County held a pandemic distinction as one of the only counties in California with zero confirmed cases of COVID-19.

The sparsely populated northern California county, which did not report its first coronavirus case until May 22, was one of the first in the state to ease social restrictions and reopen public life.

But now, a major outbreak among inmates at a state prison in Susanville, related to the transfer of inmates from San Quentin State Prison, has frustrated local officials who say the state movement of infected prisoners now represents a serious danger. for your community.

“The sentiment is truly disappointing with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, in ignoring the impact on our community regarding its policy of transferring inmates,” said Richard Egan, the county spokesman.

As of Wednesday, there were 214 cases at the California Correctional Center in Susanville. There were also five confirmed cases at the adjoining High Desert State Prison.

Outside of prisons, Lassen County has reported only 14 cases since the pandemic began. There have been no deaths or hospitalizations, Egan said.

Local officials have struggled to obtain information from the state about the prison outbreak, and the county has no jurisdiction over the prison and was not consulted about the transfer, Egan said.

“It is improving now after the horse is out of the stable, but communication has not been excellent,” he said.

State Senator Brian Dahle (R-Bieber) told The Times that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation “has not been very transparent” with local leaders and that he was concerned that COVID-19 cases overwhelmed the only hospital County Lassen Banner Lassen Medical Center, a 25-bed facility in Susanville.

“Right now, we shouldn’t be transferring the inmates,” Dahle said. “It is unfortunate, because our community had a very low rate of people infected with COVID, and here we are dealing with an outbreak. I’m frustrated. … We were doing everything right. ”

Dahle noted that prisons are the largest employers in Lassen County, and people drive long distances from neighboring Modoc County (the only county in California with zero reported cases) and Plumas County to go to work there. She was concerned that the outbreak would spread beyond the prison walls and beyond the county borders.

An estimated 60% of the staff at the California Correctional Center and the High Desert Prison live in Lassen County, Egan said. The rest travel from neighboring counties and across the Nevada border.

At least four prison employees have tested positive, he said. If they reside in another county, their cases are counted among the cases there.

On June 8, the state transferred several inmates from San Quentin to the California Correctional Center, Egan said. Three inmates who tested negative for COVID-19 before leaving the Marin County Jail were not quarantined upon arrival at the Susanville facility and were placed among the general inmate population, Egan said.

Those inmates were re-examined, and the results were positive. The cases quickly surpassed 200. Egan said that, to the best of his knowledge, the transfer of an inmate from the California Correctional Center to the adjacent High Desert State Prison facility led to the five known cases in that prison.

In a statement to the Times, Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that on June 22, the state “restricted any movement of the incarcerated population between and in all institutions to essential transfers only to mitigate the spread of the virus. ”

About a third of San Quentin inmates have been infected with the coronavirus after a transfer of prisoners from a correctional facility in southern California overrun with the disease.

different to other prisons in California, San Quentin had escaped from any coronavirus outbreak until early June. But 121 inmates were transferred there on May 30 from the California Men’s Institution in Chino, an early focus of coronavirus cases where 16 inmates died.

The transfers caused an outbreak in San Quintín, where 1,135 inmates tested positive for the virus. On Monday, Marin County officials revealed that a death row inmate found dead last week in his cell had tested positive for COVID-19.

In a June 25 letter to Ralph Diaz, secretary of the state department of corrections, Dahle and his wife, state Republican Assemblywoman Megan Dahle said they had “serious concerns about inadequate communication, planning and protocols” which led to the “explosive outbreak”. in Susanville prison.

Lassen County, they wrote, previously requested assistance from the state department of corrections during the pandemic, but was told that state prison staff “would not be available due to contract restrictions by the bargaining unit.”

The Dahles asked if the state was going to do anything to strengthen the “basic capacity of emergency medical services” and questioned why the department of corrections did not participate in meetings with local health officials.

In Lassen County, health officials knew from the beginning that prisons were “a major risk factor” and prepared as best they could, Egan told the Times.

He said he hopes the surge in cases does not cause Lassen County to be placed on the state’s coronavirus watch list and does not force the county to reduce its reopening.

“Our community has done a great job in addressing the COVID problem, and we continue to do so,” he said. “We’ll get through it. It’s just frustrating. “