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Inmate dies at Chuckawalla Valley, site of worst coronavirus outbreak in prison system

The California Institution for Men in Chino, where 13 inmates have died after contracting the coronavirus.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

An inmate at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, which has become the setting for the worst coronavirus outbreak to hit the California prison system to date, died Thursday from what officials suspect was complications related to COVID-19.

The inmate, who has not been identified, died at a hospital outside the prison. While the cause of death has not been finalized, it appears the man died of complications related to COVID-19, said Dana Simas, press secretary for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

If so, the fatality would be the first coronavirus-related death at the prison in eastern Riverside County and the 15th within the state prison system, Simas said.

Jails and prisons, where crowded conditions can make it challenging to maintain the physical distancing that health officials say is vital in stemming the spread of the disease, have proved to be particularly vulnerable.

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“CDCR takes the health and safety of all those who live and work in our state prisons very seriously and will continue to work diligently to address the COVID-19 pandemic,” Simas wrote in a statement.

In three weeks, Chuckawalla Valley State Prison has gone from having zero confirmed cases of COVID-19 to 993, the worst coronavirus outbreak to hit the California prison system to date.

In the past three weeks, the number of confirmed coronavirus infections at Chuckawalla has risen from zero to 991 as of Friday. Five people have been released after testing positive, according to the state prison system.

In total, about 44% of the more than 2,000 men incarcerated at Chuckawalla have tested positive for the coronavirus, data shows.

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Chuckawalla and four other institutions — the California Institution for Men in Chino, the California Institution for Women in Corona, Avenal State Prison and California State Prison Corcoran, both in Kings County — that account for less than 10% of the state prison system’s population but roughly 75% of its confirmed cases.

No new inmates have been admitted to Chuckawalla since the outbreak began, Simas told The Times earlier this week. The prison has designated separate housing for inmates who have tested negative for the virus, and officials are freeing up vacant space to accommodate social distancing measures, she added.

But Michael Duran, an inmate at Chuckawalla who has spent the last 35 years in prison on a second-degree murder conviction, questioned how the facility could sequester healthy inmates when nearly half the population has been infected. Built to hold 1,738 men, Chuckawalla currently houses 2,237, according to figures released Wednesday.

“Where are they going to put everyone?” Duran asked. “There’s COVID-positive people everywhere.” Social distancing measures might work outside of prison, but here, he said, “there’s nowhere to go. Where are you going to go? We’re stuck with each other. We’re breathing the same air.”

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As of Friday morning, 3,161 inmates in the state prison system were confirmed to be infected. In addition to the death at Chuckawalla, 13 inmates have died at the Chino prison and one has died at the Corona women’s prison, according to the state.


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