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Worry grows that freed prisoners are virus threat


LOS ANGELES -- Missteps by corrections officials handling releases from state prisons are fueling fears in some California counties that thousands of inmates eligible for early release will spread the coronavirus in their communities.

Across the state, county probation officials and others on the front lines of the release of as many as 8,000 inmates by the end of August have complained that prisoners were recently freed with little notice to local authorities and without appropriate transportation or quarantine housing -- and in some cases, no clear indication they were virus-free.

County officials also have expressed alarm about potentially infected inmates who were released and allowed to ride on public transportation and mingle with the public.

"We have done everything we can to contain the virus, but they aren't helping," said Richard Egan, Lassen County administrative officer, referring to corrections officials who he contends repeatedly "dumped" potentially contagious inmates there before establishing a quarantine regimen.

In a July 20 letter, Barbara Longo, Lassen County's director of health and social services, asked the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to test and isolate inmates for 14 days before releasing them. She cited the case of a recently released inmate, who visited with another freed prisoner while quarantined at a local hotel.

"We do not know how many times he left his room to go out," she wrote. "However, his 2 test[s] came back positive, 10 days after his release."

Local officials' concerns stem in part from the ill-fated transfer in late May of 121 inmates from a coronavirus-ridden prison in Chino to San Quentin, triggering an outbreak there that has killed at least 19 inmates and sickened more than 2,000.

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Some Chino inmates were cleared for the move based on month-old test results that were useless, leading to a tightening of testing protocols that came too late for many.

At least 47 inmates have been killed by covid-19 as more than two-thirds of California's 35 state prisons have been affected. The system had logged 8,039 cases by Thursday, when the count of active infections stood at 1,399.

Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to alleviate the outbreak by releasing as many as 8,000 inmates and further reducing the population by about 10,000 through delayed admissions.

So far, the state has freed 246 inmates listed as "active" covid-19 cases.

They include Michael Kirkpatrick, 62, who had been deemed suitable for parole and was awaiting final approval when he was released from San Quentin on July 13 and driven to a downtown San Francisco hotel to quarantine with other recently freed inmates.

All were asked to stay put in their single rooms during their isolation, Kirkpatrick said, but few did. Some were out walking around San Francisco while awaiting the results of covid-19 tests taken the day they were released.

"The only time you were supposed to come out is when they knocked on your door and brought you food," he said. "But you got guys who are just getting out of prison and want their freedom. The person at the front desk is not going to tell you not to go anywhere."

Kirkpatrick, who has since moved to transitional housing, said he only learned of his test results when he checked in with a parole officer. In the meantime, he said, he received not so much as a temperature check during quarantine, so he and a couple of other former inmates went to a county public health office and got tested.

"None of us knew anything, and it was bringing up a lot of stress," he said. "We didn't know anything, and nobody was contacting us."

All tested negative at that time, he said.

Joe Anderson was released early from the California Institution for Men in April after serving time for fraud. Anderson, 32, said he left as the coronavirus spread "like a wildfire" through the Chino prison.

"They checked my temperature, and that was about it," he said, recalling that he hitched a ride to Sacramento with another inmate's mother and sister and then got a lift to Mendocino County.

He visited a Dollar Tree and a Walmart before being summoned by the county health department for a coronavirus test, five days after his arrival, he said.

The test came back positive, and Anderson said the probation department immediately asked him in a polite but stern way to take a free room at the local Best Western for 14 days. He was asymptomatic but could have been spreading the disease without knowing it.

"I just wonder how many people they let go like me," he said.

Corrections officials have not explained the faulty testing at Chino or other specific problems related to early releases, instead pointing to steps they've taken to prevent recurrences.

Recently established protocols now require testing to be done no more than seven days before release.


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