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First California prison officer dies after contracting coronavirus

Officials hold a procession to honor Correctional Officer Danny Mendoza, who died of COVID-19.
Public safety officials held a vehicle procession Saturday to honor California Rehabilitation Center Correctional Officer Danny Mendoza, 53, who died after being diagnosed with the coronavirus.
(California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

A correctional officer in the California state prison system died Saturday after testing positive for the coronavirus, officials said.

While the Riverside County coroner will need to determine the precise cause of death for Danny Mendoza, 53, he could be the first staff member of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to fall victim to COVID-19.

“I am deeply saddened by this dedicated officer’s passing,” CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz said in a statement. “My prayers are with the Mendoza family during this challenging time, and I know that everyone at CDCR sends their condolences and support.”

Mendoza had worked for the department for 24 years and was appointed as a cadet in 1996. Once he graduated, he became a correctional officer at Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County.

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In 2018, he transferred to the California Rehabilitation Center in Norco, where he worked until his death.

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to rage throughout California, jails and prisons have proved to be particularly vulnerable to the virus — as crowded conditions can make it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the physical distancing health officials say is vital in stemming the disease’s spread.

As of Monday morning, 1,879 inmates in the state prison system were confirmed to be infected. Nine inmates have died from COVID-19 — all of them at the California Institution for Men in Chino.

The prisoners have tested negative but have histories that make them vulnerable in a facility where the coronavirus has infected every dormitory.

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According to state figures, there have been 309 confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff in the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and California Correctional Health Care Services as of Friday evening, with 161 of those people having already recovered and returned to work.

Ten employees have tested positive at the California Rehabilitation Center, and one is back on the job.

“I am heartbroken by the loss of one of our CRC family members,” CRC Warden Cynthia Tampkins said in a statement. “Officer Mendoza was loved and respected by his peers, he will be greatly missed.”

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In a bid to avoid outbreaks, officials have dramatically lowered the number of people held in custody in California’s prisons and jails.

State data show California’s prisons have released about 3,500 inmates while the daily jail population across 58 counties is down by 20,000 from late February.


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