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California could release up to 8,000 inmates early because of coronavirus

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says the move will allow for more space and social distancing. Thirty-one inmates have died.
Image: Coronavirus Cases Surge To Over A Thousand At San Quentin Prison
A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officer wears a protective mask as he stands guard at the front gate of San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California on June 29, 2020.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

As many as 8,000 California inmates could be eligible for early release by the end of August under a plan that aims to increase physical distancing and slow the spread of the coronavirus illness COVID-19 in the state's prison system.

The move, announced by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, comes amid rising cases in some state prisons.

Nearly 5,850 cases had been confirmed in the department as of Friday evening, with 2,319 considered active cases of people in custody. Other cases are classified as resolved. In the last 14 days, 870 new cases have been recorded, according to the department. There have been 31 deaths.

"These actions are taken to provide for the health and safety of the incarcerated population and staff,” department Secretary Ralph Diaz said in a statement. "We aim to implement these decompression measures in a way that aligns both public health and public safety.”

The department estimates that 8,000 inmates could be eligible for early release by the end of August. People serving time for violent crimes or domestic violence, and sex offenders are not eligible.

Everyone will be screened for COVID-19 within seven days of release, the department says. There are more than 110,000 inmates in the state prison system.

San Quentin has the prison system's most cases — 1,336, according to department data. There have been 506 new cases there in the last two weeks.

On July 3, two prisoners sentenced to death, Scott Thomas Erskine and Manuel Machado Alvarez, died of what are believed to be complications from COVID-19.

A day later, death-row inmate Dewayne Michael Carey, 59, died from what are believed to be COVID-109 complications, and on Tuesday another death-row inmate, David Reed, 60, died, the corrections department said in a statement.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has been reported to be facing pressure to release inmates amid the pandemic. On Thursday, the governor said that "the biggest concern" was San Quentin. San Quentin has had seven deaths linked to COVID-19.

Image: One-Third Of Prisoners At San Quentin Prison Have Coronavirus
An aerial view San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California on July 8, 2020.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Newsom has called a decision to move inmates from a Chino prison amid the outbreak to San Quentin frustrating. On Thursday, he said, "that decision created the chain of events that we are now addressing and dealing with" but added it was the responsibility of all to address it.

Newsom also said that releases must be done in a judicious way and "with a mind on public safety."

"This is serious stuff and requires a seriousness of purpose," he said. "When people are just saying, just release thousands and thousands of people, I hope they are being thoughtful and considerate of not only the victims, but the prospects of people reoffending."

The American Civil Liberties Union of California Center for Advocacy and Policy welcomed the news Friday and said Newsom "is taking action to lower the population of our prisons and save lives."

Under the plan outlined by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Friday, screening will be done for inmates with 180 days or less remaining on their sentences, those with a year or less left on their sentences, and those deemed to be at high risk if they contract COVID-19.

People are being screened, but around 4,800 people with less than 180 days left on their sentence could be eligible for early release by the end of this month, according to the department.

It will also offer a 12-week "positive programming credit" to eligible inmates, and the department estimates that around 2,100 inmates would likely advance to the point where they can be eligible for release between July and September.

The department also said it is "reviewing potential release protocols" for those who are pregnant or in hospice. People at high risk, like those over 65, are also eligible but they will have to be assessed to be a low risk of violence and no one considered a high risk sex offender would be eligible.

The department said it has already reduced its inmate population by around 10,000 since to the coronavirus pandemic.

It previously halted intake from jails during the pandemic, leaving 7,000 convicts in local lockups to further reduce prison crowding, The Associated Press reported.