Hundreds of state prison inmates in San Diego County sickened with COVID-19

A guard tower appears behind barbed wire.
Barbed wire on a fence at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego’s Otay Mesa neighborhood
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

More than 400 inmates at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent days, making the Otay Mesa lockup the site of one of the worst outbreaks for the deadly virus in the state prison system.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported 411 active cases inside Donovan on Tuesday. All but three of the cases occurred in the last two weeks.

Donovan officials activated an incident command post “to ensure immediate communication and coordination between operations, healthcare and public health experts to address positive COVID-19 cases at the institution,” state prisons spokeswoman Terri Hardy said by email.


“Based on public health recommendations, in-person visiting has been suspended since March,” she said. The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation “continues to work toward safely and securely implementing video visiting at all institutions by the end of the year.”

Prison officials are conducting mass testing of the incarcerated population each week, and weekly staff testing is mandatory, Hardy said. The prison also is following isolation and quarantine protocols and healthcare guidance for inmates, she said.

None of the cases at Donovan have been fatal, according to the state corrections department website.

The coronavirus continues to be a serious problem in state prisons, which have reported more than 30,000 confirmed cases across California and 101 deaths since the pandemic was declared in March.

About 8,400 active coronavirus cases have been confirmed systemwide in the last two weeks.

In all, the department reported 9,398 active cases — almost 10% of the state prison’s roughly 97,000 inmates.

An employee at Donovan said that previous outbreaks were generally limited to staff, but that lax observance of safety rules and protective gear led to inmates getting sick.


The employee asked not to be identified because the person is not authorized to speak to reporters.

The infected inmates are being housed in gyms to help prevent the virus from spreading further, the employee said. Testing has been widely implemented, and more masks and other equipment are being distributed.

“They can ask for an N95 [mask] if they walk into areas where there are prisoners, and if it’s an area with COVID-positive prisoners they can get the full” personal protective equipment, the employee said.

“But some custodial staff are not wearing their masks or wearing them incorrectly when near prisoners, especially in areas where there are no cameras, like the four yards and housing units,” the employee said.

The worst outbreak in the state prison system is at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, where more than 1,100 people have been infected in the last two weeks.

The Correctional Training Facility in Soledad was the second-highest, with 879 active cases among inmates, according to the department.

Like nursing homes and hospitals, jails and prisons across the country have suffered from COVID-19 outbreaks because inmates are housed in congregate living settings.

San Diego County jails also have experienced serious infection rates in recent weeks and months. The Sheriff’s Department on Tuesday reported that a total of 399 inmates and 235 staff members have tested positive for the virus since March.

Of those, 190 inmates and 77 employees had active infections, the department said.

McDonald writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.