79th prison inmate in California dies of COVID-19

An exterior view of prison walls and a guard tower at Avenal State Prison.
Avenal State Prison in Kings County.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Three inmates in California prisons died of COVID-19 in the last week, state prison officials reported, as coronavirus outbreaks continued to devastate the state’s prison population.

The latest death was that of an inmate at Avenal State Prison. He was the 79th incarcerated person in California to die from complications of the illness.

The inmate died Friday at a hospital, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a news release. He was the eighth inmate from the Kings County prison to die from the virus. His name has not been released.


Two other California inmates died of COVID-19 last week, including an inmate at Chuckawalla Valley state prison, who died Wednesday. The other fatality was an inmate at Chino’s California Institution for Men who died Oct. 26. Both men died in outside hospitals, officials said.

The latest death occurred amid heightened scrutiny of the coronavirus response in California’s prison and jail system, including around an outbreak at a San Diego federal jail that saw at least 56 inmates test positive for the coronavirus at the end of October.

Tracking the coronavirus in California state prisons

The state’s Department of Corrections has reported more than 15,800 confirmed cases to date, including at least 570 new infections in the last two weeks.

The uptick follows several weeks of a downward trend in cases: On Oct. 22, the department reported 330 active cases — its lowest number since May — but as of Monday, that number was back up to 615. There are also 466 staff members across the state’s prison system who are currently infected, according to department data.

On Friday, the department issued updated guidelines to staff on face coverings and physical distancing for the first time since July. The latest mandates require all staff to wear approved face coverings at all times, both indoors and out.

Inmates who made masks and furniture for as little as 35 cents an hour say they felt pressure to stay on the job, even as the coronavirus spread through the prison factories.

Oct. 11, 2020

Previous guidelines allowed masks to be removed when outdoors and listed social distancing guidelines as “recommended” rather than required.


Exceptions to the latest rules include employees who are alone in hard-walled offices, towers or control booths, or instances when a staff member “is actively responding to an incident.”

“In this instance, the staff member is permitted to remove their face covering while jogging/running,” the guidelines state. “However, immediately upon arrival to the incident, the face covering shall be replaced properly over the nose, mouth, and chin.”

Staff members who fail to follow the guidelines will be subject to discipline.

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

Aug. 9, 2020

The rate of positive coronavirus test results in California’s prison system is substantially higher compared with that of the state or the nation. As of Friday, the Department of Corrections reported about 161 positive cases per 1,000 people, compared with 23.6 positive cases per 1,000 residents in California and 27.6 positive cases per 1,000 in the U.S.

In a separate memorandum issued last week, the Corrections Department said all staff and visitors to facilities would be screened for the virus. Screenings will include verbal questions and temperature checks.

“CDCR has been committed to protecting all those who live and work in our state prisons throughout this unprecedented pandemic,” corrections spokeswoman Dana Simas said in an email. “We continue to work with public health and healthcare experts to ensure we are providing updated protocols to staff with the latest guidance and that staff are adhering to all health and safety requirements to mitigate COVID-19.”

There are currently 92,539 incarcerated people in California’s prisons, according to the Department of Corrections. The state has released more than 20,000 inmates since March 11, in part because of coronavirus concerns.