SEIU Local 1000, which represents health care workers, clerical staff, custodians and other prison employees, said corrections officials have propelled a system-wide outbreak by recklessly moving prisoners and failing to follow health and safety guidelines.
The grievance, filed July 28, alleges that union officials documented safety violations at all 35 prisons owned and operated by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, or CDCR.
“Some of these prisons have already had serious COVID-19 outbreaks,” the grievance states. “(Prison and prison health care officials) should still be able to prevent outbreaks if they take all possible and reasonable steps to prevent them.”
The filing comes as the deadly virus continues to overwhelm prisons throughout the state, infecting more than 8,500 incarcerated people and killing 51. The virus has also sickened more than 1,900 staff members — at least one at each facility — and taken the lives of eight.
The union is not demanding monetary damages, but instead is asking the state to make sure that proper protocols are created and enforced.
Among the problems alleged in the grievance, union attorneys say that CDCR has failed to provide adequate personal protective equipment, does not always force people inside prisons to wear masks and has failed to adequately test staff and incarcerated people for the virus.
Some of the concerns echoed those previously outlined by UC health experts, who toured San Quentin in mid-June. The experts warned that the prison’s “profoundly inadequate resources” and failure to quickly address the crisis could put both incarcerated people and staffers at risk.
The union additionally took aim at the infamous transfer of nearly 200 men from a prison that had become a virus hot zone — the California Institution for Men in Chino (San Bernardino County) — to Corcoran and San Quentin state prisons, both of which had avoided outbreaks until the transfers. Prisoners shipped from Chino were not tested for up to a month before they were loaded onto buses, and the transfers ignited widespread and deadly outbreaks.
These late-May transfers — along with a decision by the state to resume the intake of new prisoners from county jails — effectively tripled the number of facilities facing outbreaks from four to 12, said union attorney Daniel Luna.
“For the first few months, they had a good handle on the spread,” Luna said. “(Then) there were some missteps that we hope they avoid at other institutions.”
Union officials are suggesting seven different policy changes. They include each prison creating its own COVID-19 incident command center, distributing a clear written plan for isolation and quarantine areas, and ensuring that physical distancing and other safety guidelines are followed.
Luna said the grievance encompasses many, but not all, of the concerns raised by workers on the front lines of the prison outbreaks.
“We represent the nurses, and they’re the ones who are very hands-on with managing virus and treating infected inmates,” he said. “It takes into account those experiences.”
SEIU Local 1000 does not represent corrections officers.
In a statement, prison spokeswoman Dana Simas said CDCR and the California Correctional Health Care Services “have implemented a number of extraordinary and unprecedented measures to protect people who live and work in our institutions.”
Simas said all staff and incarcerated people were issued cloth masks in April and are required to wear them when they cannot maintain 6 feet of physical distancing. The prisons have additionally established a work group to monitor personal protective equipment, and have secured resources to conduct ongoing statewide staff testing at no cost to the employees.
Prison and prison health officials will be coordinating a response to the union’s concerns, Simas said.
“Additional measures have been taken to protect employees and incarcerated people, including actions to reduce the incarcerated population by more than 18,000 to maximize space for physical distancing, and isolation/quarantine efforts,” Simas said.
The grievance may be ultimately submitted to a neutral arbitrator whose decision would be binding for both parties.
While prison worker unions in California have lodged coronavirus-related complaints to individual prisons, it’s rare to file directly to the state prisons’ headquarters. The filing should fast-track the process by requiring officials to respond in 14 days rather than 30.
Because the grievance was filed July 28, the system is expected to respond by next week.