This afternoon, the California State Assembly held a hearing about CDCR’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic at its institutions. The tone of the hearing was largely set by the recent Inspector General report, which found serious fault with CDCR’s enforcement of proper PPE attire by staff and incarcerated people.
Assemblymember Phil Ting was polite but firm, and consistently held CDCR Secretary Kathleen Allison to answer for the problems at the various facilities. Allison was defensive throuhgout, arguing that the Department has been doing a good job overall monitoring COVID-19 prevention protocols. Ting did not seem to buy this at all, and pointed out numerous ways in which Allison could monitor compliance. He drew the obvious comparison to nursing homes, explaining that the homes were audited through surprise visits. “When I show up for inspection,” he explained, “everyone’s on their best behavior.”
When Allison insisted that there was no systemic problem at CDCR, Ting responded:
The reason we’re having the hearing is. . . far and away, institutionally, these two types of institutions [prisons and nursing homes] created a disproportionate number of COVID cases. Obviously, there’s a lot going against all the prison facilities, because of how people are housed, the crowding, etc etc., but that’s why we are so concerned. There are things out of your control, such as the physical plant, but there are things that are in your control and that’s what we’re concerned about. There were things that could have mitigated, could have reduced the situation, it was not done, and was not done in a systemic fashion. The fact that there’s enough data to show significant inconsistency between institutions shows some systematic failure, in my opinion. I asked the same of the IG, but is this under your purview or under the Receiver’s? You both signed the memorandum.
Ting got a little–but not a lot–more from a doctor working under Receiver Clark Kelso. He asked, “You have people dying in facilities in pretty high numbers. Why do you think they wouldn’t have taken that as a cue to take this seriously?” The doctor replied: “I think what we see in our system mirrors what we see in our country, people in doubt, people in confusion whether masks are helpful or harmful. As you know, this has been a topic of conversation in our political system for some time. What we’re seeing in our institutions is a reflection of the political conversation.”
Ting was having none of it: “You don’t run a hospital, you run a department where freedom was taken away. You characterized as “unclear”. I see it as crystal clear. These are all state employees – why were state employees allowed to ignore what the Governor and the Secretary ordered everyone to do?”
Emphasizing that he did not want to be misunderstood as doubting the efficacy of masks, the doctor explained that noncompliance could be attributed to the fact that they were “thick, hot, hard to breathe.” He explains that we should “extrapolate” what it was like for people on the outside to wear them for part of the day to people who “are expected to wear them 24/7, 365, because they cannot get away by themselves in a closed room with no one else. It’s a heavy lift. The overwhelming majority of patients and staff are doing a good job – they are not being perfect, they are fallible. Our physical plant is not conducive to people complying.”
Finally, the doctor admitted that the missing piece was the “disciplinary component of what we’ll do with folks who are just not willing to comply. That component is being strengthened and it will improve even more.” Ting wondered why this had not been done previously: “You work for Mr. Kelso, and he has fairly broad authority in this realm. why didn’t you use your authority to ensure everyone was wearing a mask?” The doctor insisted that wearing a mask was “not a choice” and that there was a “firm consistent message from secretary and receiver about our expectations about face coverings. I’ve personally been to 14 facilities since July and reminded staff and patients. There’s been a really clear expectation. The part that was not there was a progressive disciplinary process. I guess we hoped that people would do the right thing.”
This reply, unsurprisingly, led to a scolding by Assemblymember Cooper: “Everyone has been indoctrinated on how we do it, not just for ourselves but for other people. It’s a leadership issue, it starts at the top. Progressive discipline starts at the lower level. That should’ve been going on at the . It’s sad but it’s a failed leadership.”
The hearing then shifted to the testimony of Kim Siebel, Deputy Director of Facility Operations at CDCR, who was charged with explaining the ban on visitations and the paucity of programming. Siebel explained that they defined four opening phases, ranging from the most to the least restrictive, and that sometimes different units or yards within the same prison could be in different phases. At this point, she explained, 46% of the prison system was phase 1 and 54% phase 2, which means there’s only limited out-of-cell programming. She acknowledged that “visiting is an important part, conection with families,” and said that they were “moving onward with developing protocols.” Nevertheless, in their discussions with the California Department of Public Health, they “determined that in-person visiting is not the best solution” and they are “working on a video visiting program” as well as a dedicated email address and free phone calls through their contractors.
The paucity of programming is a big problem, because participation in programming offers incarcerated people good credits, which can hasten their release. And because of the remote location of many California prisons, only some institutions can benefit from the participation of volunteers (this is what made Quentin, despite its dilapidated condition, an attractive place for people seeking rehabilitative programming–it is widely available there, through the effort of Bay Area do-gooders and no thanks to CDCR.) Because CDCR relies so much on volunteer work, the Legislative Analyst’s Office representative pointed out that, in reintroducing programming, CDCR failed to take into account COVID rates and compliance levels in the prisons’ surrounding community. Siebel initially implied that they had taken this into account, then recanted and said that “this is something we’ll want to add.”
Ting lost patience with Siebel’s comments about “looking to expanding” programming. “I’ve been hearing this since I’ve been budget chair,” he said, “and have yet. . . When the department says they are “looking into something” it means they’re not doing it.” Siebel promised: “We can provide a list of what we’re currently doing,” which Ting noted that he appreciated. “What I’m concerned about,” he added, “is what is the Department doing to bring back the programing it already had.” Siebel promised an update “soon”, which did not satisfy Ting: “Soon is not a timeframe for me. I don’t know waht ‘soon’ means to you, so maybe we can set a date.” Unsurprisingly, what followed was an evasion dance:
“We can get you a timeline of what we’ll be looking at, but I need to check with my department and provide a timeline.”
“When can you provide me a timeline?”
“How is a week?”
“A week sounds wonderful.”
The hearing then shifted to public comments. Most of the commentators–Ivana from LSPC, Dolores Canales, Ashley, and others–commented on the havoc that the visitation ban has wreaked on the families’ mental health, particularly around the holidays. Ivana explained, “Families are used to abiding by COVID protocols at school, church, restaurants, work, court, when visiting with extended families, Why couldn’t we follow these going into CDCR?” Ashley characterized CDCR’s response to the hearing as a “livestream of lies and obfuscations. . . Why haven’t people with high risk been released? Why have they been denied parole? Why is CDCR lying about programming? Why innocent people? People in prisons and tier families know how to keep themselves safe.” Dolores Canales mentioned information she received from incarcerated women, whose cleaning supplies are being confiscated. Ashley mentioned a friend with terminal lung cancer who is, astonishingly, still incarcerated amidst all this, and who recently applied for clemency. The last commentator, whose name I didn’t catch, mentioned that prisons in both Florida and New York are now open for visits.
I found the hearing reassuring. It seemed that Assemblymembers Ting and Cooper were nobody’s fools, and they refused to be satisfied with “we’re looking into this.” We need more pressure, continuous pressure, if we want to see releases of people with chronic conditions. We cannot let In re Von Staich go to waste and people’s lives being more at risk via unnecessary transfers than they already are. To wit: There are currently four major outbreaks. CVSP has 290 new cases, CTF has 157, HDSP has 29 new cases, and SATF has a whooping 386. There are new outbreaks–small so far, but they need to be monitored: CAL (7 new cases), CEN (17 new cases), and PBSP (3 new cases).
Disturbingly, if you were hoping that some of these unsavory trends would be reversed via releases, it looks like CDCR is doing exactly the opposite. WSP has increased its population from 1869 on Oct. 4 to 2409 today (and has seen 15 new cases). The total CDCR population is up almost 100 since last week. In short: WE MUST PRESS ON.