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Faulty thermometers, untrained screeners may have let COVID-19 into prisons, watchdog says

A guard tower at the California Institute for Men in Chino.
The California Institute for Men in Chino was one of several state prisons that experienced massive outbreaks of COVID-19 among staff and inmates.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Vague testing guidelines, faulty thermometers and inadequate staff training are suspected of contributing to the COVID-19 outbreak in California prisons that has killed at least 54 inmates and sickened more than 9,500 others, the state’s Office of Inspector General reported Monday.

“Without properly functioning equipment and adequate training, the screening process was certainly compromised, and the risk of infected staff entering the prisons, thereby exposing others, could have increased,” the report noted.

The 47-page report, which focused on coronavirus screening of prison staff and “essential visitors,” such as contractors and attorneys, also criticized California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials for withholding key COVID-19 tracking data for months, hampering the watchdog’s review.

The inspector general’s office launched its examination in April, the month after the corrections system instituted screening at its 35 prisons. But the statewide directive that all staff and visitors be checked for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 was inconsistently applied, the report said.

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Some prisons funneled vehicles through a single screening point where occupants were questioned and had their temperatures checked. Other prisons screened staffers at pedestrian entrances, apparently after they parked their cars and walked onto the grounds.

“We found that this second approach increased the risk that staff or visitors may have walked into or through other work spaces without having been screened,” the report noted.

The inspector general’s staff experienced the flaws firsthand, during multiple visits in May and June, the report said. It cited one visit to California State Prison Sacramento, where they “walked all the way through the administration building and met with the warden” without being screened.

“By that point, although our staff were eventually screened, the screening failed to accomplish its purpose: our staff could have already infected departmental staff,” the report said.

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In addition to on-site visits, the inspector general sampled training records and surveyed 12,000 corrections staffers: The vast majority said they were always screened when entering the prisons, but an average of 5% said they were not.

“Many screeners apparently received no formal training at all concerning their prisons’ screening processes, thus increasing the risk of allowing infected individuals to walk into prison facilities and expose others to the disease,” the report noted.

It went on to say that “numerous screeners also identified multiple instances of thermometers malfunctioning during screenings,” registering inaccurate temperatures, sometimes because of weak batteries.

It was unclear in those cases if screeners then turned away the insufficiently tested staff and visitors or allowed them to enter the prisons anyway, the report said.

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California has focused on freeing nonviolent offenders to combat the spread of coronavirus in prisons, but some have committed violent crimes.

In a letter responding to the report, Corrections Secretary Ralph Diaz said the department had taken steps to address the issues it raised.

“The department recognizes the establishment of effective screening procedures is imperative to prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19 among staff, inmates and the public,” Diaz wrote.

“Executive staff at the department are working closely with infectious disease control experts to ensure appropriate measures are put into place while simultaneously minimizing the impact of COVID-19 on our operations,” he said.

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The inspector general’s findings came as no surprise to Robert Davis, a correctional supervisor at California State Prison Los Angeles County and a chapter president with the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., the guards’ union.

“We have been saying for months their testing is a failure, the thermometers don’t work,” Davis said, describing the report as “pretty accurate.”

“Our thermometers at the beginning would either not work at all or would say our temperatures would indicate we were dead,” he said. “I was about 87 degrees most times.”

Davis said newer thermometers now in use seem to work better.

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More than three-quarters of the state’s prisons have reported at least one infection, and several are continuing to suffer significant outbreaks. State lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom recently criticized corrections officials for the ill-fated transfer in late May of 121 inmates from a coronavirus-ridden prison in Chino to San Quentin, triggering an outbreak there that has killed at least 25 inmates and sickened more than 2,000 others.

In a letter to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who requested the investigation in April, Inspector General Roy W. Wesley said that corrections officials had withheld information and data used to track staff who had tested positive.

Although the same information on inmates was made publicly available, corrections officials withheld it for staff, citing confidentiality concerns.

The department has since relented, agreeing to provide it “as soon as possible.”

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“Nevertheless, the decision to initially withhold the information we requested remains a concern,” Wesley wrote. “The department’s decision to change course at this point does not alleviate the adverse effect its initial decision had on our ability to fulfill our mission.”

Since May 30, nine corrections staffers have died of COVID-related illness, officials say.

Inmate advocates say the numbers are alarming.

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“Nine is an extraordinary number of staff deaths. I cannot recall anything like that in any year,” said Michael Bien, a leading attorney for prisoners with medical and mental health issues. “Right now it is very dangerous for those in custody and those working there.”

Don Specter of the Prison Law Office, which represents inmates in a long-running federal lawsuit related to California prison overcrowding, called the inspector general’s findings disturbing.

“Since staff are the main way that the virus is able to enter the prisons, the failure to properly screen and test staff to determine whether they are infected may have led to an increase in infections and illness among those incarcerated, other staff and members of the community,” he said.


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