High Desert State Prison in Susanville, CA continues to struggle with COVID-19 epidemic

California Correctional Center in Susanville, CA - photo: CDCR

The High Desert State Prison (HDSP) in Susanville, California has experienced two significant outbreaks of COVID-19 this year. The first came to the over-crowded prison this summer and peaked around 250 active inmate cases, according to state records. Prison officials took measures to halt the spread of the virus, and the outbreak subsided.

But a second, more widespread, outbreak began in early November that peaked with nearly 900 active inmate casesTo date, one COVID-19-related death has been reported at HDSP.

The Ally first reported on the second outbreak at the prison on November 14 and requested comment from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) with an email and a voicemail, but the queries were not returned.

Several parents and relatives of inmates in the prison wrote the Ally asking for more information from the CDCR, as prison officials did not respond to their inquiries.

Maggie Moe lives in Whittier, California and has a son in the Susanville facility. She spoke with him by phone earlier this week.

“My son reported to me that there’s an emergency at Susanville state prison. He informed me that the inmates are contracting COVID-19 and the coronavirus, and it’s because they’re being transferred when they get sick and they’re being transferred to other buildings. The problem is that the infected … the cells are not being disinfected. So when an inmate leaves a cell, a new inmate is brought in and that inmate is being infected,” Moe said.

After speaking with Maggie Moe, the Ally wrote Dana Simas, press secretary, Office of Public and Employee Communications to say that we have been in communication with mothers and relatives of inmates and have questions regarding conditions in the prison.

A CDCR spokesperson promptly replied, and in an email related that the prison had “immediately responded to the increase in positive COVID-19 cases at High Desert State Prison with coordinated efforts to increase the frequency of testing, conduct contact tracing and implement isolation and quarantine measures to mitigate spread of COVID-19.”

Specifically, regarding the transfer of inmates when they are diagnosed with COVID-19, the CDCR says the cells are disinfected.

“When a cell or bunk is vacated, the assigned inmate porter disinfects the space. For restricted housing units, cleaning is performed by staff.”

In addition to cell disinfection, according to the CDCR, all institutions have been instructed to conduct additional “deep-cleaning” in high-traffic, high-volume areas, including visiting and health care facilities. 

“Those in the incarcerated population identified as assisting with cleaning areas of the institution have received direct instruction on proper cleaning and disinfecting procedures in order to eliminate coronavirus,” the CDCR wrote in an email response to questions.

Moe said her son told her that the sanitary conditions in the prison were “deplorable.” According to Moe, her son said there is a rat infestation in the prison. The CDCR categorically denies the allegation as unfounded.

Prison Operations Revised

In an effort to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus at HDSP, in-person visitation has been suspended since March of this year. The CDCR says it is working to implement a safe and secure video visiting system at all institutions by the end of the year.

Inside the prison, the movement of inmates during the COVID-19 outbreak is highly organized and guided by policy. According to the CDCR, the prison is following a mandatory directive, or 14-day statewide modified program, in an effort to limit movement of both staff and the population throughout the institution. 

“This includes staggered dining and recreation schedules to allow for physical distancing and disinfecting between use while not mixing housing units, education and rehabilitation materials delivered in the housing units, and only essential transfers conducted under the CDCR/CCHCS Patient Movement Matrix which dictates mandatory testing and quarantine timeframes for all transfers.”

Mass testing is underway. According to the CDCR, prison health officials have administered 2,829 COVID-19 tests to 84 percent of the incarcerated population in the last 14 days. 

Patients identified as medically high risk for COVID-19 complications and those that are immunocompromised are tested every three to five days, according to the CDCR. 

Mandatory staff testing is taking place weekly at HDSP. Further information regarding the process for staff and incarcerated population testing can be found on the COVID-19 Response Efforts webpage

With nearly 100 staff members with active cases of the virus, prison officials wrote in an email response to questions, that additional staffing resources are being redirected to HDSP to assist with patient care.

The Ally asked if CDCR is working with Lassen County health officials to prevent the spread of the virus into the community. Like almost every county in California, there has been a sharp spike in the number of active COVID-19 cases in Lassen County since the beginning of November.

According to the CDCR, “HDSP communicates with the Lassen County Health Department on a daily basis to provide updates on the COVID-19 outbreak at the institution.”

Regarding Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the prison says it has all needed PPEs for inmates and staff. All institution staff are required to wear (surgical) masks while performing duties on institution grounds, and additional personal protective equipment (PPE) if required based on public health guidance. 

N95 masks and other personal protective equipment have been provided to all staff who are required to wear them. N95s are provided to inmates who request them. 

According to the CDCR, all staff are screened verbally and by temperature check whenever entering institution grounds. All inmates have been provided numerous cloth facial barriers and are regularly provided cleaning supplies, with additional supplies provided upon request.

Maggie Moe describes herself as a prisoners advocate. She said with the outbreak of a deadly disease in a prison at roughly 140 percent of capacity, her son and other inmates are are tortured with worry.

“My son is very … my son is a healthy young man. But he is very, he’s very worried. He is so worried about this situation. He suffers from anxiety. He was told he’s there on a low, you know, he’s eligible to be able to leave there because he’s low risk. And he was told that they were going to put an ankle bracelet on him and send them home. 

“They’re not offering any type of program, no education, no nothing. Everything … everybody is kind of like on lockdown and in their cell. And my son is very stressed and very worried. And I feel so bad for him because there’s nothing I could do for him. The only thing I could do for him and for the other parents and the other inmates’ family is to have a voice for them and to let them know what is happening.”

Moe said she attempted to call the prison warden but was told he doesn’t take calls. She said she was promised a return call from a prison spokesperson, but has not gotten one.

“This is a time for unity,” Moe wrote in a text message. “The warden at High Desert is responsible for the inmates and staff. He cannot continue to hide and not get back to the public.”


Brian Bahouth is a career public media reporter and editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Support his work between now and the end of the month, and NewsMatch will match your one-time or ongoing contribution.