The COVID-19 death toll at California’s San Quentin state prison hit 22 on Tuesday, in the deadliest of several outbreaks that have hit prisons across the state, reports The Guardian. San Quentin, California’s oldest prison and home to death row, has experienced the largest outbreak of coronavirus among prisoners in the state, with 168 positive cases as of Tuesday morning. At the outbreak’s peak, the prison had 1,636 infections, more than a third of the population. The outbreak has prompted demands for Gov. Gavin Newsom to grant mass releases to stop the virus from spreading further. Last month, he announced initiatives that will lead to the expedited release of 8,000 people from Californian prisons by the end of August.
The most recent deaths come as the population of the notoriously overcrowded prison system dropped below 100,000 for the first time in 30 years. The California prison population exploded in the 1990s due to tough-on-crime policies, longer sentences, and the “three strikes” law. The population reached its peak of 165,000 in 2006 (the system is designed to hold 85,000 people), leading to a 2011 Supreme Court order to decrease it. The outbreak at San Quentin began after a May transfer of 121 people whom officials deemed to be at high risk of contracting and becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 from a prison in Chino. Before the transfer, San Quentin had no positive cases; within four weeks of the move, it had reached almost 1,200. California prison officials have reported more than 1,000 new cases in the past two weeks. As of Tuesday morning, the state prison system had seen 8,362 positive cases since late March, 6,720 of which have been marked as “resolved.” Attorney Michael Bien says the state again should allow inmates to earn credits that can decrease their sentences and establish remote psychiatry for those who need it.