UPDATED: Soledad prison reverses course on holding live classes as the state shuts down The Correctional Training Facility, currently free of positive COVID-19 cases, had let outside educators in, raising outbreak fears

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UPDATE: After this story ran, the Correctional Training Facility’s acting warden Craig Koenig has informed the chair of the prison’s Inmate Family Council that educational programs with outside staff and in-person classrooms will immediately be halted due to community concerns about bringing COVID-19 into the institution. We’ll follow up as more details become available.

By Julie Reynolds Martinez

The California Department of Corrections is quietly opening up one of its two Monterey County prisons to outside educational staff, despite the state entering a stricter shutdown phase and the explosion of COVID-19 cases in several California state prisons.

The change came without announcement or fanfare, and on Monday classes staffed by outside teachers and counselors started again at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad.

CDCR officials said no in-person classes were starting at the next-door Salinas Valley State Prison.

Both prisons have had very low COVID case numbers, and from the start of the pandemic CTF had been especially diligent about taking measures to keep the virus at bay, including instituting cell feeding instead of “chow hall” dining early on. Prison reform advocates and inmates praised CTF for doing a commendable job — which makes the decision to open up perplexing to many. (Disclosure — a relative of mine is incarcerated at CTF.)

A department spokesperson was at first surprised when asked about the re-opening, referring Voices to the department’s COVID-19 response page, which still said as of Tuesday that outside staff “will not be permitted to enter state prisons until further notice.”

Yet on Monday, officials confirmed that classes with outside teachers and counselors were indeed starting up in Soledad.

“California Training Facility (CTF) will restart some in-class education courses on July 13 while following rigorous health and safety protocols,” CDCR spokesperson Terri Hardy told Voices in an email.

Hardy said class sizes “will be reduced to a maximum of nine students, and days of attendance will alternate to allow for adequate physical distancing.”

The classrooms have been and will continue to be deep cleaned, Hardy said, and students and teachers will be required to use PPE, personal protective equipment. Portable hand washing stations have been placed in buildings.

“Students from the same housing unit attend classes together, and meals are eaten in cells, all of which eliminates interaction between groups,” Hardy said. “All CTF staff, including teachers, have been tested for COVID-19 and ongoing mandatory staff testing as well as baseline testing of the incarcerated population will take place at the institution.”

Some inmates there, including those assisting teachers in CTF classrooms, said they have not been tested and haven’t been told when or if they will be. As of Friday, no CTF staff were reported as positive, and no inmates have been reported as having COVID-19.

Only 3 percent of CTF inmates, or 142 men, have been tested in the past two weeks, according to the CDCR’s COVID-19 case tracker. However, every staff member there was tested recently.

Four employees at Salinas Valley State Prison, which shares the same “campus” as CTF, have tested positive, in addition to one who has recovered and is back at work. Three inmates have tested positive there, but there were no new cases in the past two weeks and there have been no deaths at either Soledad prison. (NOTE: At press time, the state hadn’t updated its data page since July 10.)

Inmate peer mentors at CTF said that educational and counseling supervisors told them the prison was the first in the state to open up educational programs that require so-called “free staff” to come in from outside, with at least two other prisons following suit.

Considering that other prisons have experienced extensive outbreaks after infected staff apparently brought the virus inside, the decision has some wondering why the department decided to restart classes Monday, a day when Gov. Newsom again shut down activities around the state, re-closing bars, indoor dining, theaters and more.

Monterey County, where CTF is located, is on the state’s list of “monitored” counties, which means it must adhere to the state’s strictest shut-down measures. Nearly all indoor gathering activities have been ordered shut down since Monday, including fitness centers, worship services, protests, personal care services and shopping malls. Meanwhile, nearly 10 percent of inmates at the Monterey County Jail now have COVID-19 in an outbreak that’s put one in the hospital and 74 people testing positive.

As of last week, 6,453 state prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19, with 1,092 of them confirmed during the past 14 days.

In San Quentin, where COVID-19 case numbers exploded in recent weeks, 2,030 men — two-thirds of the prison’s more than 3,000 inmates  — have tested positive to COVID-19. Ten San Quentin inmates have died of suspected COVID infections, and 205 employees have been infected. The prison has set up “alternative care” tents in its yards, in addition to sending patients to outside hospitals and adding staff to cope with the emergency.

The state prison system’s medical overseer admitted the department made mistakes when transferring inmates to San Quentin from a COVID-19 prison “hot spot” in Chino without adequate, recent testing — a move that many reform advocates say led to the disastrous outbreak at San Quentin.

It’s that sort of mistake that prison watchdogs worry will happen in Soledad.

Questions about transparency 

Since mid-March, inmates across the state have had no access to classes and programs that would help them earn time off their sentences. To make up for this, the state recently granted three months’ off the sentences of nearly all inmates as an acknowledgement of their cooperation and sacrifice during the coronavirus shutdown.

The move was well received and helped inmates feel better about so much down time during the pandemic.

But now, Hardy said, “it is important to have a path forward based on science, health and data. CTF operations and medical staff carefully weighed these factors, along with the importance of offering in-classroom rehabilitative programming.”

Asked why classes are opening now, Hardy said prisoners have asked for it.

“The inmate population has requested face-to-face instruction, and CTF responded with a plan devised to protect students and staff. Classes are held by housing units, minimizing risk of cross-contamination for inmates and staff.”

“Classes include college courses, vocational instruction and adult basic education, all of which allow inmates to earn release credits and help prepare them for jobs.”

Hardy added that extended time away from classroom interactions “often results in difficulty retaining information.”

Prison reform advocate Vanessa Nelson says she’s concerned on several levels, one being the actual implementation of safety measures among correctional officers.

“All the protocols that CDCR has handed down looked great on paper. They looked really good, but when it comes down to boots on the ground and implementation, that’s what concerns me,” Nelson said. “In some prisons they can’t even get the COs to wear masks.”

Nelson said she’s heard credible reports of officers saying things like they “wouldn’t mind infecting those ‘baby killers.’”

“It only takes one like that to totally screw it up,” she said. “That’s my concern.”

Life Support Alliance, Nelson’s organization, has started a GoFundMe campaign to send in-cell mental health study packets for inmates to work through while they’re locked down. Although they won’t get “good behavior” credits for the program, prisoners can receive a certificate that goes into their files for future parole hearings.

Nelson also wonders why the opening of in-person classes wasn’t announced in the department’s emailed daily COVID-19 updates. “If this is a step forward, why aren’t they making this public?” she asked.

Nelson questions the assertion that inmates have been requesting live classes. “How many guys want it? Where was the vote? There’s a million other questions that go along with this.”

From a health perspective, she worries that even with frequent testing of free staff, the coronavirus is going to make its way into CTF, a prison that until now has been completely free of positive cases among inmates.

“Which one person is going to screw it up?” Nelson asked.

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Julie Reynolds Martínez

About Julie Reynolds Martínez

Julie Reynolds Martínez is a freelance journalist who has reported for the Center for Investigative Reporting, The Nation, NPR, PBS, the NewsGuild and other outlets. She is a co-founder of Voices of Monterey Bay.