In summary: More than 7,500 prisoners sent home in the program — which aims to slow the spread of COVID-19 — would have been released within months anyway. Thousands with health conditions remain in prison, and the virus keeps spreading.
In July, amid an epidemic of coronavirus cases, California’s corrections agency rolled out early-release programs touted as a solution to protect inmates at overcrowded prisons. But nearly all of the prisoners selected were scheduled to be released within months anyway, while many inmates with longer sentences remain in prison despite serious health conditions.
About 6,500 inmates in California’s prisons were eligible for release under the state’s high-risk medical release program.
But as of Nov. 25, only 62 inmates were released solely because of their medical conditions, according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The rest of the 7,596 people released had less than a year to serve on their sentences and may or may not have medical problems.
That means several thousand people with serious medical conditions remain in California’s prisons as the number of COVID-19 cases among inmates and guards surges. Even with the releases, more than 20,000 inmates — and counting — have tested positive. At least 95 have died, and some prisons remain overcrowded.
“This is frankly unacceptable,” said Sharon Dolovich, faculty director of the UCLA Prison Law & Policy Program and director of COVID Behind Bars. “I’ve been hearing the number 62 for at least a couple of months, if not longer. It’s just a trickle.
“It’s not going to make any appreciable difference when we’re talking about COVID-risks, and it just tells you that the governor and the Department of Corrections are not taking this crisis seriously,” she said.
Early releases are designed for people with less than a year on their sentences or medical conditions that put them at high risk. To be released early, people can’t be serving time for domestic violence or a violent offense or committed a crime that requires them to register as a sex offender, and the CDCR must deem them low-risk for violence.