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As inmate deaths and infections rise, Chino, Avenal prisons will test all employees for coronavirus

Housing in the Elm dorm at California Institution for Men in Chino.
(U.S. District Court filing)

The state corrections agency has implemented mandatory testing of all employees at the California Institution for Men in Chino as the number of inmates who have died after contracting COVID-19 there has risen to nine and the total number of inmates testing positive has grown to 635.

The decision to test all employees followed a weekend during which three more inmates who were hospitalized with COVID-19 died. So far, 58 staff members at the prison have tested positive, with 35 of them recovering and returning to work. Under the new program, any employee who has not tested positive for the virus will be tested. According to an information sheet given to employees, anyone not complying would face disciplinary action.

The prison has been the source of all the coronavirus-related deaths in California state prisons and more than half the total number of inmates testing positive in the California correctional system.

State officials did not identify the three inmates who died over the weekend after being hospitalized.

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The deaths come as the state prison system will begin this week to take in new prisoners for the first time in two months.

Correctional officials also implemented mandatory testing for staff at Avenal Prison in Kings County, according to state corrections press secretary Dana Simas. That prison, located along the I-5 corridor, has seen its number of the infections jump to 198 in the last week, along with 10 of its staff. It now ranks second in terms of the number of inmates infected among state prisons.

In the information sheet given to the Chino prison employees, it said the state is working on a wider mandatory testing program for correctional employees across the state.

Inmate John Blagg, who is serving an eight-year sentence at Chino for driving under the influence with injury, said inmates have been split up into groups of those who have tested positive and those who have tested negative. Prison authorities have also set up tents in the courtyard areas in an effort to spread the inmates out.

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“I don’t deserve a death sentence,” he told The Times last month in an interview. “I am afraid I am not going to make it out... I understand I did what I did. I’ll do my time. I don’t want to die and I don’t want other people to die.”

California’s prisons resumed processing this week for the first time since Gov. Gavin Newsom suspended their intake in March. New inmates will be accepted from only four counties: Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Fresno.

“It is anticipated that no more than 200 inmates will be accepted from those counties through June 19,” according to the state corrections department. Inmates will go to one of two intake centers, at North Kern State Prison and Wasco State Prison. At each location, inmates with be offered coronavirus testing. If they test positive, they’ll be isolated. Any inmate declining testing will be quarantined for 14 days.

More than 3,500 prisoners have been released as the state sought to socially distance inmates in an effort to help stem the spread of the virus.

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The lack of intake in state prisons for the past two months further reduced the number of prisoners by 6,000, according to statements made in recent federal court hearings. But outbreaks of the virus have gripped prison populations across California and the nation.

There have also been outbreaks at federal prisoners in California, where a combined total of 1,800 inmates have been infected at Lompoc and Terminal Island and 10 prisoners have died. The ACLU is suing to force the release of some of those prisons’ federal inmates, citing the health dangers.

In state prisons, an effort by prisoner lawyers to force releases has so far failed. A three-judge federal panel and a single federal judge have rejected moves by lawyers seeking more releases for inmates in a long-standing legal fight over overcrowding and medical treatment in California’s prisons. According to a court filing by the state, 108,850 inmates were housed in the state’s 34 adult institutions as of May 13, which is 127.9% of design capacity.

Defending the state’s actions, an attorney for the governor and corrections said in court last month that the state had implemented a recommendation from a court-appointed federal receiver to create smaller pods of inmates and separate each group of inmates.


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