As COVID-19 spread through California’s prison population, the confluence of the virus’s tendency to impact individuals in close quarters and the state’s prisons operating at 137.5% capacity made inmates and staff hyper-vulnerable to the virus. In April, Governor Gavin Newsom recommended the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) establish an “expedited release” program decreasing the population of state prisons, thus mitigating COVID-19 transmission.
As inmates have been released, Emerald County officials have decried the program’s unfunded demand for services concerned that the rapid release of this inmate population could overburden the already stretched thin system of rural law enforcement and public health.
None of the officials we interviewed in Humboldt, Mendocino, or Trinity County were happy about the situation and Mendocino County’s Chief Executive Officer Carmel Angelo was particularly scathing. She argued, “I don’t understand the logic with taking a high-risk population and putting them out into the state, into all the different counties, that may or may not have the resources to protect the public when you intentionally are bringing high-risk people back into these communities, I don’t understand the logic.”
The CDCR stated their goal is “ensuring the health of our incarcerated population and staff” and commits the program will “be done in a way that aligns both public health and public safety.” They argue, “Reducing the prison population will also alleviate the impact on local hospitals that provide emergency care to individuals in prisons experiencing outbreaks, which can require transporting dozens of patients to outside hospitals for care.”
CDCR identified “two cohorts of inmates” that are eligible for expedited release: “180-Day Release” and “One-Year Release.”
For the “180-Day Release” cohort, CDCR has noted the following eligibility requirements for early release:
- “Have 180 days or less to serve on their sentence
- Are not currently serving time for domestic violence or a violent crime as defined by law
- Have no current or prior sentences that require them to register as a sex offender under Penal Code 290
- Not have an assessment score that indicates a high risk for violence.”
The “assessment score” described above refers to the CDCR’s California Static Risk Assessment (CSRA), which uses an offender’s past criminal history and characteristics to predict their risk to re-offend.” University of California, Irvine Professor of Criminology Susan Turner compares the CSRA to risk prediction utilized in auto insurance where data such as age, gender, driving experience, etc. determine the likelihood that the driver will be in an accident. There are six essential elements when computing recidivism risk, according to Professor Turner:
- age at release, gender
- the total number of felony sentences
- felony sentences for murder/manslaughter, sex, violence, weapons, property, drug and escape offenses
- misdemeanor sentences for assault, sex, weapons, property, drug, alcohol, and escape offenses,
- revocations of probation or parole supervision.
The “One-Year” Cohort’s criteria are identical to those listed above except for CDCR’s stipulation that individuals in this cohort must “reside within identified institutions that house large populations of high-risk patients” such as San Quentin and Folsom State Prison.
Mendocino County’s Chief Probation Officer Izen Locatelli characterized the process of facilitating CDCR’s expedited release program as “rough.” In April, when the first wave of inmates was sent to the counties, Locatelli recalled a COVID-19 positive prisoner being released from the state prison in Chino and ending up, unbeknownst to the County, at a Ukiah mobile home park. This incident and others like it inspired the Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC) to work with CDCR to “smooth out” the processes of the expedited release program.
With CPOC applying pressure, CDCR is now working to communicate with counties before inmates arrive in their jurisdictions. Locatelli described getting calls at all hours about released inmates being dropped off in Mendocino County and spending hours driving inmates back and forth between hotels where they are quarantined. He said CDCR has told him that by the end of July, Mendocino County is anticipating eleven inmates “released to County Probation under Post-Release Community Supervision and five released to Parole–16 total inmates.”
Officials in California’s Emerald Triangle are unhappy about the State thrusting an unexpected burden on them without providing the needed money or manpower to assist them to do the job correctly.
Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal said California’s inmate release program is “a problem.” He expressed an understanding of the state working to mitigate COVID-19 outbreaks, but expressed frustration that the state was pushing the “problem back on the county without offering us resources.”
On July 10, Sheriff Honsal said the state informed him that approximately 30 inmates would be released back to Humboldt County and described the task of housing and monitoring these inmates as “problematic.”
Sheriff Honsal acknowledged that though these inmates’ current offenses may not be a violent crime, “It doesn’t mean that they’re not violent in general.” However, he assured the community in that “if there is a need to alert the public over an inmate that’s being released, [Probation] will do that.”
When asked whether the inmate release poses any danger to the community, Sheriff Honsal expressed doubt that these individuals had gone through a thorough quarantine/isolation and was concerned that burden could fall on Humboldt County and its Public Health infrastructure.
In nearby Mendocino County, Sheriff Matt Kendall pointed out that long before the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Newsom’s had signed a bill ending California’s utilization of private prisons and publicly discussed the need to decrease the state’s prison population. Sheriff Kendall described seeing the movement to release prisoners as both a tactic to address COVID transmission and fulfillment of Newsom’s political promises.
Sheriff Kendall went on to describe how these mandates from the California State government come “at a time we’re suffering from personnel shortages, high crime rates, the looming Public Safety Power Shutdown (PSPS), and fire dangers which are rapidly approaching.” He expressed that his agency is “worried the workload is being completely shifted to the counties from the State.”
Speaking to the burden on Mendocino County’s already strained resources, he said, “The State has left us in a position to create plans, housing and care for these recently released offenders, but has not provided State personnel or funds to help with this sudden increase in workload.”
In Trinity County, which so far has had only three people test positive for COVID-19, Sheriff Tim Saxon said CDCR had given the county “advanced notification of the release of three convicted inmates.” Similar to Humboldt and Mendocino County, Sheriff Saxon described Trinity County enlisting the Trinity County Probation Department to collaborate with Trinity County Public Health on “mitigation processes and procedures for these persons that will include coordinating basic needs such as housing, transportation, and supervision and wrap-around services that [may] be required.”
In an interview earlier this month before the state had transferred care of inmates to Trinity County, Sheriff Saxon shared, “The three inmates being released early to Trinity County each have several prior felony convictions. However, the criteria used by CDCR to select inmates for early release only account for the charges they are currently serving time. Previous convictions, no matter what the crimes, are not being considered. Trinity County Probation Department related that CDCR uses the standard California Static Risk Assessment (CSRA) tool as the determination of risk.
Emerald County public health officers reported collaborating with CDCR and local law enforcement entities to transition released inmates into their counties while maintaining safety. Mendocino County’s Public Health Officer Dr. Noemi Doohan advised county officials that any inmates being brought into their jurisdiction should be “quarantined for 14 days if they were having an outbreak from their prison where they originate.” She also suggested that Public Health actively monitors the health of these individuals while in quarantine/isolation housing.
Humboldt County’s Public Health Officer Dr. Teresa Frankovich said Humboldt County was generally being informed by CDCR “ if there is someone who has either tested positive or somebody who has a potential exposure or is coming from a facility where they’ve had outbreaks.” Like Doohan, Frankovich also emphasized the importance of providing housing to these individuals for isolation or quarantine to protect the public.
Mendocino County Chief Probation Officer Izen Locatelli explained late last week that in his most recent communications with the CDCR regarding pandemic protocols if an inmate is considered for expedited released tests positive for COVID-19, they will not be released. The state did make it clear to Locatelli that in the circumstances of an inmate being naturally released (having served the totality of their sentence) testing positive for COVID-19, the prison would release them because they cannot “legally hold anyone past their sentence.”
Typically Locatelli says he has seen that the CDCR is testing any inmate that had a known direct exposure to COVID-19 or if they are “coming from a COVID-19 hotspot.” Even though CDCR is conducting these tests, Locatelli said Mendocino County Public Health orders dictate that these individuals are quarantined for fourteen days upon entering its boundaries.
Locatelli described this 14-day quarantine as just one of the “terms and conditions for an inmate in the COVID-19 era.” He described some inmates as extremely appreciative of the lodging and food because they “had no plan.” Conversely, Locatelli has experienced released inmates “furious they have to quarantine and I just simply tell them, ‘This has to be better than San Quentin.’”
When asked whether the early release of inmates could compromise public safety, Locatelli spoke candidly, saying, “These inmates were always going to be released. They’re just getting out 6-12 months early because of COVID.” He described himself as “being in the business of rehabilitation and redemption, so releasing them early puts more pressure on me to rehabilitate them faster.” Ultimately, Locatelli said he was working hard, “trying to make the best of a bad situation, smooth this for the community and the offenders.”
As the Emerald Counties await more inmates being released to their jurisdictions, it remains to be seen if all three counties will be able to integrate the released inmates safely back into the local communities.