By Andrea Nakano

SAN QUENTIN (KPIX 5) — In roughly three weeks, San Quentin has gone from zero to 456 cases of the coronavirus as of Wednesday. It is estimated that 1 in 8 inmates has COVID-19. Now, local doctors are warning prison officials about a possible catastrophic outbreak.

Jacques Verduin is the founder of Insight Out, a program that helps inmates transition to life on the outside.

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“It’s unthinkable that they would risk the whole population the way they did,” said Verduin.

The COVID-19 outbreak happened after a dozen inmates from a facility in Chino were transferred to San Quentin.

Verduin says the outbreak has taken over the north and west blocks which houses violent offenders with life sentences.

“There’s a cloud of fine droplets moving through and every 20 minutes one of them calls man down. That’s what you say when there is a medical emergency,” said Verduin.

“Unfortunately I’m not surprised. That’s exactly what I feared would happen,” said Dr. Stefano Bertozzi with UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health.

Bertozzi and Dr. Brie Williams were two of six doctors from the Bay Area who got an inside look at the pandemic within prison walls.
“When it gets in… it spreads like wildfire. It’s like a tinder box waiting to explode,” said Dr. Williams.

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They said what makes San Quentin unique is that the prison is home to an older inmate population with risk factors for disease. Doctors say the only way to stop the spread is to social distance by releasing prisoners.

Verduin says he’s given a list of inmates ready for release to the California Department of Corrections.

“We roll up our sleeves we go into the trenches and work with these people. We’re not saying they’re all safe but a great many are,” said Verduin.

California Department of Corrections says its been working tirelessly since the pandemic hit to protect staff an inmates.

“San Quentin has implemented a modified program to limit movement of both staff and the incarcerated population throughout the institution,” said spokesperson Dana Simas CDCR.

Now, doctors fear the outbreak will only get worse. At least 40 staff members have already been infected with the virus. Many live in Alameda County.

“There’s nothing special about a wall of a prison or a bars of a cell that are going to keep the virus from escaping prison,” said Williams.

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There are nearly 1,500 employees at San Quentin. The concern is when they leave to go home they are putting their families and communities at risk.