As the coronavirus rages through California’s crowded prisons, Gov. Gavin Newsom faces mounting criticism over his administration’s handling of the health crisis affecting state prison populations — including at San Quentin, now the center of the one of the country’s most dire COVID-19 outbreaks.

In total, there have been 1,314 infections and seven deaths among inmates at the Marin County prison as of Thursday afternoon. That includes four reported deaths over the July 4 weekend, which led Gov. Newsom Monday to announce a shakeup of the state’s correction system’s leadership.

The changes included the replacement of the state correction system’s top medical officer, who Gov. Newsom criticized for the decision to transfer 121 inmates in late May from the California Institution for Men in Chino to San Quentin State Prison.

“It has been incredibly frustrating,” Newsom said at a news conference Thursday. “That decision created the chain of events that we are now addressing and dealing with. I’m not here to sugarcoat that, I’m not here to scapegoat that.

“All of us our now accountable to address this issue and doing so in a forthright manner.”

Most of the facility’s COVID-19 infections were reported in the past two weeks, after the transfer of inmates from Chino. Now, more than one-third of San Quentin inmates have tested positive.

This health crisis has led activists to call for the mass release of prisoners throughout the state.

For the past three months, Newsom and the state corrections department have resisted large-scale releases, arguing for more incremental actions in order to control the outbreak.

In April, the state released 3,500 non-violent offenders who were within two months of being released. As of Thursday, there are 2,328 COVID-19 patients in a state system of 35 prisons.

At San Quentin, total inmate population has been reduced from 4,051 in March to 3,482 by the end of the June. Newsom said the state’s plan is to further reduce the total to 3,076 “within the next few weeks.”

This week, authorities began the expedited release of inmates within six months of their release date.

But justice-reform groups assert a slow decompression of California’s prison’s population won’t be nearly enough to stop the outbreak that has led to 31 COVID-19-related inmate deaths statewide.

Newsom, meanwhile, has repeatedly defended his administration’s cautious strategy, maintaining that housing and care for released inmates needs to be a consideration.

“What I can’t do is release people to the streets and sidewalks and park benches and call that compassion,” Newsom said Thursday.

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Author: Wes Goldberg

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