‘Powder keg’ at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison with 110 cases of COVID-19 in two weeks

The California Institution For Men in Chino, where more than 630 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and nine have died.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Until May 13, none of the 2,306 men incarcerated at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. The prison on the eastern edge of Riverside County had seemed spared from the outbreaks ravaging penal institutions in Chino and Lancaster.

But since three inmates at Chuckawalla tested positive for COVID-19 on May 13, 107 additional people have been infected, according to statistics from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, vaulting Chuckawalla to near the top of the state prison system’s list of facilities most stricken by the coronavirus.

The recent outbreak places Chuckawalla amid a group of five institutions — the California Institute for Men in Chino, Avenal State Prison in Kings County, California State Prison in Los Angeles County and the California Institution for Women in Corona — that account for 13% of the state prison system’s population but 98% of its confirmed cases of COVID-19.


The California Institute for Men in Chino has suffered the worst outbreak. More than 630 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 and nine have died. The CDCR has reported no inmate deaths traced to the coronavirus at any other institution.

At Chuckawalla, about 25 miles west of the Arizona border, prison officials have begun moving inmates out of buildings that housed people under quarantine to other parts of the prison, Robert McBride, an inmate, said in a phone interview.

McBride, 58, who said he is 10 months shy of finishing a 16-year sentence for robbery, fears this will circulate the virus throughout the prison, which, given the recent rash of infections, he described as “a powder keg.”

“We don’t know who has what, who’s coming from where,” he said. “We’re at the mercy of fate.”

The CDCR didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Inside the prison, where inmates are housed in pods and sleep in bunk beds a few feet apart, social distancing is impossible, McBride said. Chuckawalla, like most California prisons, is overfull: Built in 1987 to house 1,738 inmates, it now holds 2,306 men, according to CDCR figures.

Every inmate has been issued five canvas masks, which he must wear whenever he leaves the pod, McBride said, and guards perform temperature checks as well.


No inmates at Chuckawalla have died or been released due to the coronavirus to date, according to the CDCR.