SAN QUENTIN (CBS SF) — While California has not executed a death row inmate since 2006, an out-of-control COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin State Prison may have contributed to the deaths of four condemned inmates over the last week.
To date, more than 1,300 prisoners and 120 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 at the state prison located in Marin County. Among those who have fallen victims to the deadly illness have been San Quentin’s aging population on death row.
On Friday, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation identified the two inmates who died while being treated for COVID-19 infections as Scott Thomas Erskine, 57, and Manuel Machado Alvarez, 59. Both died while being treated at San Francisco Bay Area hospitals.
Erskine had been on death row since 2004 for the murder of two young boys in San Diego, while Machado had been on death row since 1989 for a string of crimes in Sacramento including rape and murder.
There have been two other deaths of condemned inmates deaths amid an exploding number of coronavirus cases at the prison.
Richard Stitely, 71, was found unresponsive in his cell last week on June 29 and was confirmed Monday to have tested positive for COVID-19. He was sentenced for the 1990 rape and murder of a 47-year-old woman in Los Angeles County.
Joseph S. Cordova, 75, was found dead in his cell on July 1. He had been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in San Pablo.
UCSF infectious disease specialist Peter Chin-Hong said he’s not surprised by the outbreak that has sent dozens of critically ill inmates into care at Bay Area ICUs.
“It’s a lot of people together, they’re not all masked, the windows are closed, the facilities are not open and there’s a lot of shouting and screaming, which allows those droplets that the virus travels on to travel further,” he said.
UCSF infectious disease specialist Dr. Peter Chin-Hong is part of the team that treats some patients from San Quentin. He likened the outbreak to Chernobyl.
“Like Chernobyl, there’s widespread effects outside of that tower. The effects are in the surrounding counties, because we absorb those patients. The effects are in the community, where the healthcare workers and the prison guards live in,” he said.
The outbreak is believed have started after a transfer of prisoners from a correctional facility overrun by the illness in Southern California.
“The prison was built in 1852. It’s the oldest prison in the state, and it’s got old grill cells, they’re not closed doors,” said Assemblymember Marc Levine.
Levine says the style of the prison cells allowed the disease to spread like wildfire. He has been a strong critic of the botched handling of the pandemic.
“We now, very late in the game have a unified command system here at San Quentin with the Office of Emergency Services. We are bringing a mobile hospital to the grounds of San Quentin that will have 160 beds by next Friday,” said Levine.
The CDCR said there are currently 722 people on California’s death row. While California doesn’t currently have a way to carry out capital punishment, inmates still continue to be sentenced to death.
Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on it shortly after taking office and the death chamber at San Quentin was dismantled. The state has executed only 13 murderers since 1978, the last in 2006.