'I Don't Want to Feel Like A Sitting Duck.' COVID-19 Stokes Fear Inside A California Prison
Chris is getting out of prison in four months.
Or so he hopes. Now he worries he'll come out in a body bag.
"The last thing I want to do is get infected and die in prison," Chris said over the phone from the Taft Modified Community Correctional Facility, a minimum-security prison about an hour's drive southwest of Bakersfield.
We spoke with four inmates at Taft. They talked about how social distancing is impossible when you have to pack 70 or more men into dorms "the size of a convenience store," as A.J., who lives in the same dorm as Chris, put it.
Inmates' beds are separated by a foot or two, said A.J., who, like Chris, declined to say why he's in prison.
The cafeteria is even more crowded, A.J. said.
"There's 100 men on these tables lined up elbow-to-elbow," A.J. said. "All it would take would be one sneeze, and that sneeze would cover at least six or eight men's food trays."
None of the inmates we spoke with felt comfortable using their full names for fear of retaliation. All of them said they feel helpless in the face of the virus.
WE LIVE '24 INCHES FROM EACH OTHER'
"We literally live at all times 24 inches from each other, sleeping, eating, showering, going to the bathroom," he said. "There's just nowhere to hide."
"I don't want to feel like a sitting duck," said Alan, who's serving a 14-year sentence at Taft for assault with a deadly weapon on a police officer.
The 36-year-old is up for parole soon — but now he worries he won't make it out.
"I can't run, I can't hide, I can't keep myself safe from the virus," he said. "I can't do these things that I'm being told to do."
The facility has one nurse and a physician's assistant. The nearest hospital is 45 minutes away. That all heightens inmates' concerns.
"If it comes through here, it's going to roll through like wildfire," said. A.J.
To make matters worse, a broken pipe has left half the prison without hot water, he said, adding, "we've been offered a bucket with disinfectant in it and some rags, and that's it."
TALES OF DISINFECTANT AND SOAP
As of Thursday, 11 state prison staffers and one inmate had tested positive for COVID-19, according to a live tracker maintained by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
One inmate has tested positive in an Orange County jail. No one has yet tested positive in an L.A. County jail.
On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order that would halt admission of all new inmates into state prisons and juvenile facilities for the next 30 days. Inmates will stay in county custody. Parole hearings will move to video conferences.
Like many county jails, the state prison department has suspended public visitation, programming and religious services.
Each community prison is also required to have a written infection control plan.
The CDCR said it's giving inmates hospital-grade disinfectant to clean their dorms.
The disinfectant provided is Sani-Klean, according to the prison's logs. It needs to stay on surfaces undisturbed for 10 minutes, "but how do you keep a surface clean for 10 minutes when there's 70 guys in there?" A.J. said.
The Corrections Department also told us that it's providing extra soap to those who request it. When we pointed out that the agency's online guidelines did not state that, the guidelines were updated to note that extra soap will be provided "when requested."
The Taft inmates we spoke with said they hadn't been told they could ask for more supplies.
The prisoners normally receive one bar of soap per week. "It's probably no bigger than an inch thick, and three inches wide," Chris said, adding that it doesn't last long.
"If you hadn't told me [about being able to ask for extra soap], I would have laughed at you if you'd asked," A.J said. He said he's been denied extra toilet paper in the past.
In response to our questions about the conditions at Taft, a department spokeswoman said the chief of CDCR's Contract Beds Unit "made personal contact" with the prison's executive leadership to ensure the inmates are getting additional cleaning supplies.
'TRY AND STAY AHEAD OF EVERYTHING'
In New York, the prison on Rikers Island is dealing with a spike in COVID-19 cases. There are over 50 confirmed cases among the inmates.
The Taft prisoners fear their facility could become the next hotspot.
"The only thing I can do is just try and stay ahead of everything," Chris said.
He has experience with illness in prison. He says a couple years ago he got Valley fever.
"It was horrible," he said. "They wouldn't wash my sheets, they wouldn't wash my blankets."
Ironically, Chris feels like he might be safer in a higher security prison — where each inmate has his own private cell.
Chris' dorm mate Alan says some inmates are holding out hope that Newsom does something to release prisoners — and soon.
But based on what he sees in the news from the outside world, Alan isn't sure that would help.
"If they don't really have the adequate means on the street to handle this, then what's going to happen to us?" he said.
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March 26, 3:58 p.m.: This article was updated with the latest information on the number of state employees who tested positive for COVID-19.