What’s Going on in Monterey County’s Prisons? In face of COVID surge, Soledad prison again tries to start up programs and rounds up scores of Black inmates

Incarcerated men at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad |

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By Julie Reynolds Martinez

 

All day Wednesday and Thursday, employees at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad were tested for COVID-19 as part of the department’s effort to try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus while cases rip through other state prisons.

As of this writing, no inmates have tested positive there. Only two staff members at CTF have had COVID-19, and both recovered and returned to work weeks ago. (Disclosure: a relative of mine is incarcerated at CTF.)

Likewise, at Salinas Valley State Prison, which sits on the same acreage as CTF, no inmates are reported to have current cases. Thanks to swift and consistent action by their wardens and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials, both prisons have remained remarkably COVID-free, even as San Quentin, Avenal, other state prisons and Monterey County’s own jail are being ravaged by the virus.

Yet decisions are being made in Soledad that could put inmates and staff at greater risk, leaving prison reform advocates to ask, “What were they thinking?”

The wolf, or the threat of COVID, is very much at the gates: at Salinas Valley, 12 employees tested positive for COVID-19 this week.

At CTF, relatives of men housed in the prison’s Central Facility were distraught this week over news that scores of Black inmates were roused from their sleep, zip-tied and corralled together without masks or social distancing while correctional officers searched their cells. Though some relatives of those detained reported 200 inmates were rounded up, the advocacy group Life Support Alliance has verified a total closer to 100.

The raid took place around 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday, when officers in a special gang unit detained the men, according to online posts from prisoners’ relatives and an emailed report from LSA.

Prison officials say the raid was part of an ongoing operation and that it did not have a racial basis despite the fact that all the inmates detained were Black.

The alliance stated the prisoners were taken to the chow hall with “little clothing and no masks (hard to put on a mask when you’re cuffed), where they were placed four to a table, which we can guarantee is not social distancing, while their cells were tossed by guards, reportedly not wearing masks or in some cases gloves.”

The men were asked about ties to Muslim and Black nationalist groups, relatives said. Prison officials say the raid was part of an ongoing operation targeting Security Threat Groups (corrections terminology for “prison gangs”), and that it did not have a racial basis despite the fact that all the inmates detained were Black.

The specific threat group targeted, according to inmates’ relatives, was the Black Guerilla Family, the smallest of the country’s top four prison gangs and one that has historic ties to the Black Panther movement.

CDCR spokesman Aaron Francis told Voices, “While details of this investigation are confidential, we can confirm that an investigation was held as the result of STG behavior that has been ongoing at CTF. The incarcerated people in the investigation were not identified based on their race, and all safety protocols were followed throughout the investigation.”

Asked if any of the inmates were injured during the round-up, as has been alleged by some family members, Francis said Warden Craig Koenig “personally toured during the investigation to ensure it was being conducted safely and appropriately. Nobody was harmed and the institution’s normal operations resumed quickly.”

“However, if any incarcerated person feels otherwise, they are always welcome to file an appeal utilizing the normal institutional 602 process,” he added, referring to the form inmates use to file complaints.

Francis said Security Threat Group behavior “jeopardizes everyone, and especially puts in harm’s way those who are trying to build better lives for themselves and their families by participating in positive activities and committing to good behavior.”

Koenig, CTF’s warden, did not respond to questions from Voices by press time.

Some have questioned the timing of this particular raid, given both the pandemic and the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice.

“So, what will be said in about 14 days, if the rate of positive COVID tests suddenly rises at CTF, which has, heretofore, no positive cases?” Life Support Alliance founder Vanessa Nelson asked. “But then, they haven’t had groups of 100 in close contact with no COVID protections either.”

Even if the action doesn’t result in the spread of COVID-19 at CTF, Nelson said, “was this the smartest thing the administration could do, in this time (of) increased racial sensitivity?”

Some in-person classes resuming, despite COVID-19 fears

Meanwhile, CTF’s rocky plans to reopen classrooms to outside staff has confounded counselors and inmates alike.

CTF had quietly begun to restart its in-person classes and vocational programs last week — but abruptly shut them down after Voices reported concerns that reopening might be imprudent while COVID-19 is surging in the region and most indoor activities have been shut down.

But now — again without announcement — the prison is poised to restart at least one indoor classroom program that brings in dozens of outside “free staff” daily: its substance abuse counseling program, more formally known as Cognitive Behavioral Interventions, or the Integrated Substance Use Disorder Treatment Program.

Relatives of inmates reported on social media that corrections officials have told them that outside staff, such as the counselors, are not allowed into any state prison, pointing them to regulations posted on the department’s COVID response page that also state, “No rehabilitative programs, group events, or in-person educational classes will take place until further notice.”

But Voices has confirmed that counselors were indeed back inside the prison this week.

CDCR spokesman Francis acknowledged Thursday that staff are coming in to “set up their classrooms in preparation” to resume on Aug. 3.

The department declined to answer why this particular program is slated to resume while all other in-person classroom activities are suspended due to COVID concerns.

“Classes will be limited to six participants and one counselor so proper physical distancing can take place,” Francis said. “All program participants and staff are required to wear a mask and classrooms will be sanitized between each session.”

The department declined to answer why this particular program is slated to resume while all other in-person classroom activities are suspended due to COVID concerns.

The classes at CTF are run by Amity Foundation under a contract with the state. For fiscal year 2020-2021, California originally budgeted nearly $165 million for Amity and another group to run the programs across various prisons, but that amount was recently reduced by $30 million because classes were cut due to COVID-19. Amity did not respond to an emailed request for comment from Voices.

Members of the prison’s Inmate Family Council said Thursday they are trying to meet with the prison’s administration to get answers.

Life Support Alliance has called the decision to resume classes a case of “what were they thinking?”

Prisoners say the problem isn’t just that staff are coming in from outside — after all, correctional officers come and go every day —  it’s that inmate workers in these programs will have prolonged contact with staff and each other in enclosed spaces for six or more hours a day. Experts say people closely congregating indoors for an hour or more greatly increases the risk of spreading the virus.

Right now, inmates say, they’re able to social distance most of the time and can avoid prolonged, indoor contact with correctional officers.

“It’s not broken, so why are they trying to change it?” said one prisoner, who asked not to be named. He said the prison has — at least until now — done an admirable job keeping everyone safe from the virus.

If  this re-opening does bring in COVID, he added, “they can’t say no one warned them.”

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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.