Four California death-row prisoners are dead and more than 210 have been infected in a coronavirus outbreak that news reports say is “tearing through” the nation’s largest death row.

Fueled by an influx of infected prisoners during a prison transfer at the end of May 2020, the COVID-19 virus has exploded through San Quentin State Prison (click to enlarge picture). As of July 2, nearly 1,400 San Quentin prisoners and more than 100 members of the prison staff had been infected. Sources tell DPIC that more than 210 of the state’s 725 death-row prisoners (29.0%) have now tested positive for the disease, with dozens more awaiting test results.

The outbreak killed Richard Stitely, 71, who was found dead in his cell on June 24 after exhibiting symptoms of the coronavirus. He was the first condemned California prisoner to die of COVID-19. Stitely was among the numerous prisoners who had refused testing because prison medical personnel were not changing gloves between tests. Although prison officials would not confirm his cause of death, Marin County officials reported on June 29 that Stitely had posthumously tested positive for COVID-19. As of July 2, death-row prisoners Joseph S. Cordova, 76, Scott Thomas Erskine, 59, and Manuel Machado Alvarez, 59, also have died in the outbreak.

Doctor Peter Chin-Hong of the University of California–San Francisco told NBC Bay Area that San Quentin was the “Chernobyl of COVID” and a “COVID wildfire.“ ”[T]hey ran out of tests at San Quentin,” Dr. Chin-Hong said. ”People are scared there.”

Death-row prisoner Tony Rodriguez said “most of us are already infected. They’re telling us they’re going to test us and we’re waiting for that test every day, but it’s just getting worse and worse here.” He told NBC Bay Area that “[t]he alarms go off 10-to-15 times a day now. They’re responding to someone who’s not responding or barely moving. There are a lot of older guys here who have been here for a lot of years and those are a lot of the guys they’re taking out every hour on a stretcher.”

Marylou Hillberg, a lawyer who is representing two men on death row, noted that California’s death-sentenced prisoners are especially vulnerable to COVID-19. “It’s an aging population on Death Row,” she said. “There’s a lot of folks who have medical conditions that make them especially fragile: heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, hypertension.” She added that she feels “totally helpless to do anything” for her clients in the midst of the outbreak.

In one month, San Quentin went from zero known infections of the novel coronavirus to more than 1,000. On May 30, 121 men were transferred from the California Institution for Men in Chino, which at the time had the state’s largest number of infected prisoners. Though prison officials claimed the men had been tested prior to the transfer, many had been tested weeks before the move without being retested. A federal judge overseeing medical treatment in California’s prisons called the transfer a “significant failure.” San Quentin has now surpassed Chino as the prison facility with the most COVID-19 cases, and it accounts for more than 20% of the total 4,800 confirmed cases in the entire California prison system. Twenty-three prisoner fatalities have been attributed to COVID-19 across the state, including 16 at the facility in Chino.

Public health experts from the University of California–Berkeley and UC–San Francisco warned prison officials in mid-June that San Quentin’s population would need to be cut by 50% to avoid a major outbreak. A few prisoners have received expedited parole, and prisons have halted intakes from local jails, but the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has not undertaken the kind of efforts recommended by public health experts. San Quentin officials said they are in the process of erecting “[a]ir-conditioned tent structures … to help provide on-site locations for additional physical distancing in housing and for medical triage.”


Megan Cassidy and Jason Fagone, Coronavirus tears through San Quentin’s Death Row; con­demned inmate dead of unknown cause, San Francisco Chronicle, June 25, 2020; Megan Cassidy and Jason Fagone, San Quentin coro­n­avirus out­break: Death Row pris­on­er who was found dead test­ed pos­i­tive, San Francisco Chronicle, June 29, 2020; Michael Bott, Anger Mounts Inside and Outside San Quentin as COVID Outbreak Grows More Dire, NBC Bay Area, July 3, 2020. [Updated July 3, 2020 with addi­tion­al news reports.]

Photo cour­tesy of Frank Schulenburg/​Wikimedia Commons.