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An inmate tested positive for COVID-19. Prison staff housed him with uninfected inmates, he says

 Chuckawalla Valley State Prison.
Despite testing positive for COVID-19, an inmate at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison said he was placed in a pod that houses 11 other men, none of them infected.
(Los Angeles Times)

Midway through explaining how an inmate who’d tested positive for COVID-19 had been placed in his unit at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, Gary Croom paused.

“Here,” he told a reporter. “I’m going to give him the phone.”

Saddled with guilt, worried he might touch off a resurgence of the disease that swept through the prison on the eastern edge of Riverside County a month ago, Alejandro Cantu took the phone.

Last week, Cantu explained, he broke his leg playing basketball on the yard and was taken to John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Indio.

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Cantu, 34, had first tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, about a month earlier. Before undergoing surgery, he was tested again. The results came back five days ago, he said: still positive. He said that after his surgery, prison staff placed him in a pod — a small, enclosed space where inmates bunk a few feet apart — that houses 11 other men, none of them infected,

Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said Cantu’s account was “false and unsubstantiated.” After receiving questions about it from The Times on Thursday, prison officials investigated his allegations and found them to be untrue, she said. The chief medical officer at Chuckawalla has met with inmates in his unit and “assured them no COVID-19 positive inmates had been placed there,” she added.

“Our department is working hard to fight the spread of COVID-19 in the state’s prisons, and we have taken concrete actions to ensure the safety and wellness of our population and staff,” Simas said in a statement Friday. “Any allegation to the contrary is categorically false.”

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Whether or not he is contagious, Cantu questioned why he wasn’t placed in quarantine or at least in a building that houses infected inmates.

His bunkmates are terrified of him, and Cantu said he worries he might trigger a second outbreak of COVID-19, which raced through Chuckawalla in June, infecting nearly 1,000 inmates — 44% of the prison’s population — in a three-week span. It was one of the worst outbreaks to hit the California prison system.

“I’m concerned about someone getting really sick,” he said. “I’m concerned about someone dying.”

As of Thursday, 1,607 inmates in the California prison system were infected with COVID-19. To free up space in the state’s chronically overcrowded prisons, Ralph Diaz, the prison system’s secretary, announced this month that 8,000 additional inmates would be released early.

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From the onset of the pandemic in March through July, the prison system has overseen “one of the largest reductions in state prison population in recent history,” a spokesperson said in a daily update Thursday evening. By suspending intake from jails and hastening the releases of some 10,000 inmates, the prison system has cut the number of people in its custody by 16,000. Its incarcerated population is below 100,000 people for the first time since 1990, the update said.

Staff have managed to rein in the outbreak at Chuckawalla; as of Friday, only one inmate was infected with COVID-19, and the prison recorded just three new cases in the last two weeks, according to figures compiled by the state prison system.

Yet given the cramped confines at Chuckawalla, which was designed to house 1,738 inmates but currently holds 2,119, some in the lockup worry an outbreak could flare up at any time.

“Just like a forest fire in a dry forest, it would burn right through here,” Robert McBride, an inmate, said in a phone interview. “You can’t get away from people in here. You’re sleeping mouth wide open, snoring, three feet away from the next bunk.”

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McBride, 59, has spent nearly 13 years in prison for robbery. His release date is in December, and the closer that date comes, the more he fears catching COVID-19, he said.

“I’m so, so close to going home right now,” he said.


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