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When Omicron Surges, Prisoners Have Little Protection

Unclear COVID-19 protocols and ill-prepared prison staff continue to harm California's incarcerated population throughout the omicron surge.

An aerial shot of California Institution for Women in Chino, California. It is a sprawling prison complex.
An aerial view of the California Institution for Women in Chino. (Source: California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation)

As omicron surges bring daily COVID-19 cases in the United States to record-breaking highs, one population is at a distinct disadvantage — those who are incarcerated. Whistleblowers in US prisons have shed light on the abysmal treatment of inmates throughout the public health crisis. Although vaccinations do provide some level of protection against the virus, prisons were ill-prepared for the wave of disease that omicron — which experts describe as far more contagious than previous COVID-19 variants — brought to the incarcerated population. 

As of the beginning of February, 81% of inmates in the incarcerated population of California are fully vaccinated, which is higher than the state’s general vaccination rate of 73.1%. The vaccination rate of prison staff, 71%, is lower than the state’s. California Governor Gavin Newsom fought against the vaccination mandate for prison staff earlier this year, making those in the occupation the only federal employees who are not required to receive COVID-19 vaccinations in the state. The governor’s opposition to mandates for prison staff contradicts his positions supporting vaccine mandates in schools for healthcare workers.

A January 22 study from the University of Copenhagen and the Danish Health Ministry found that those with the omicron variant who were vaccinated were less likely to transmit the virus than their unvaccinated peers. G., a woman incarcerated in a California prison who requested anonymity due to possible repercussions and danger, wrote in an email that if an incarcerated person’s boss tests positive with COVID-19, the inmate is told to quarantine without any clear time frame given by the prison staff.

Jane Dorotik served 20 years in the California Institution for Women, in Chino, until new evidence exonerated her in 2020. Dorotik spent two months in prison amid COVID-19 before her release. She described the quarantine centers for the incarcerated population as overcrowded and unhygienic. “There were roaches crawling on the wall,” she said of the quarantine rooms, which she also described as overcrowded with inmates. 

Dorotik recounted the arbitrary use of solitary confinement over quarantine, as facility staff failed to handle the everyday issues concerning inmates as well as new measures pertaining to COVID-19. Dorotik attributes her experience while incarcerated at the start of the pandemic to ill-prepared staff.

Dorotik also recalled some incidents where prisoners reported experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 but were not granted any immediate care. One woman then tested positive a few days after reporting her symptoms and ended up infecting some of her peers.

According to G., residents of the prison are also not provided any clear instructions in regards to COVID-19 protocol. Residents who experience symptoms but test negative are also told to quarantine, without any date given by the prison staff for them to leave. They are moved to quarantine units with those who have already tested positive. That means prisoners who may have another sickness, like a cold or flu, are placed in quarantine alongside those with COVID-19. 

G. herself has not tested positive as of February 1, but she is acquainted with other residents in her prison facility who have contracted the virus. After conversation with those peers, G. described to Knock LA the treatment in quarantine. “They did not receive basic medication like cough drops or Tylenol,” she wrote in an email of the prisoners who tested positive. “Their rooms were cold and had no heat, their windows had holes in them and some don’t close. Some sinks had only cold water, some only had hot.”

G. shared that, since March 2020, she and many other inmates have lost contact with their families. They have no WiFi in their rooms, so they can only send emails when they exit. Additionally, they lack access to video chat, and their phone calls are limited to 10 minutes including connection time. 

“In my unit, we have 111 residents (full capacity would be 120) and there is only one working phone,” she wrote. “We should have two, but one has been broken for a month now. That means at any given day, only half of us will be able to use the phone, if at all.” 

The UCLA Law “COVID Behind Bars” project, which documents the data from COVID-19 in prisons across the United States, currently lists 4,772 active cases in (adult) California state prisons as of February 7, 2022, or 401 cases per 10,000 people. In comparison, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state of California has 133.1 cases per 100,000 people, and the city of Los Angeles has 162.9 cases per 100,000 people. Additionally, the project reports that neither staff nor incarcerated persons in the state of California share the number of daily tests administered. According to Dorotik, those incarcerated in her facility are tested once every five days due to the omicron surge. 

The pandemic has taken a mental health toll on those incarcerated. Both G. and S., another woman who requested to keep her name private for safety concerns, referred to the atmosphere in prisons throughout the pandemic as a “nightmare” and “lots of anxiety building up.” G. said that residents only get about 30–40 minutes a day outside of their cells to take showers, with eight shower stalls for approximately 115 residents. The two women both shared how residents at their respective facilities recieve extremely limited time for showering. There are days when the water pipes burst, so running water is shut off for water conservation and the inmates are unable to shower. G. also shared that throughout the pandemic, groups of eight residents were only given 40 minutes of phone time, so only four can use the phone for 10 minutes at a time. 

However, both the current prisoners, and Dorotik, who credited public health advocates, recounted that facilities provide those incarcerated with PPE (personal protective equipment). Residents receive hand sanitizer as well as N95 and surgical masks. However, PPE is not readily available for inmates across California prisons, as some prison staff have ignored mask and other COVID-related orders.

Among interviewees who spoke to Knock LA, all of those who have experienced the pandemic while incarcerated in California prisons pleaded for more humane treatment. Dorotik hopes that those outside of prisons across the country see the “horrific” environment that incarcerated persons endured over the pandemic and advocate for safer conditions.