After nine months of coronavirus, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is now requiring staff to wear surgical masks because of a surge in positivity rates.
“We are not allowing any more cloth masks,” said California Institution for Men’s Warden Mona Houston during a citizens advisory committee on Dec. 8. “We’re holding staff accountable.”
Warden Houston told the committee, “We have gone to surgical masks that staff must wear correctly and we’re asking folks to be personally responsible,” she said.
The Department refers to the blue disposable surgical masks as “procedure masks.”
Joseph Bick, M.D., the statewide medical director for California Correctional Healthcare Services, was the featured speaker in a video posted on the CDCR website in late November announcing the new policy.
“In spite of your efforts, we continue to see COVID outbreaks in our institutions, many of which have been linked back to staff not consistently following our policy on face coverings,” he said.
Dr. Bick said the CDCR has routinely received reports from inmates, family members, co-workers, and the Office of the Inspector General that staff is not always complying with masking policies.
“Let me be very clear,” he said. “Wearing masks at work is mandatory.”
The video message was intended to remind staff that wearing masks is not only mandatory but those who do not comply could face disciplinary action, according to the CDCR.
Dr. Bick spoke at a joint oversight hearing of the Senate Public Safety Committee and the Senate Special Committee on Nov. 19 on how California prisons are responding to the pandemic.
He stated that some staff have been using bandanas and neck gaiters as face coverings.
A committee member, and those posting comments about the video, said the surgical mask mandate should have been implemented earlier.
Staff members at the California Institution for Men and California Institution for Women said the inmate population and staff are being tested on a regular basis.
As of Dec. 21, any staff member who refuses to undergo mandatory testing will be sent home without pay and will be subject to a discipline process, beginning with a formal written reprimand, according to new rules.
D. Glucksman, associate warden, Americans with Disabilities Act for CIW, told the citizens advisory committee that a spike was anticipated during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
"Inmates aren't leaving, but staff is coming in," Mr. Glucksman said. "We have been evaluating to see how some can work from home to keep the virus out."
The CDCR is providing masks for those performing duties on institution grounds and additional personal protective equipment when required.
According to the CDCR website, there are 61 active cases of COVID and 81 new cases at the staff level in the last two weeks, as of Dec. 21, at the California Institution for Men.
There are 73 active cases and 83 new cases in the last two weeks at the California Institution for Women.
There are 3,411 active COVID cases among prison staff statewide, according to the CDCR website.
"Inmates are also required to wear masks but there are different scenarios that govern which mask is required,” said Dana Simas, press secretary for the Department.
“If they’re being transported between or throughout institutions, they’re required to wear N95 masks,” she said.
“In an outbreak situation, inmates are offered N95s in the housing units but are not required to wear them, but are required to wear a cloth facial barrier.”
Inmates are required to wear N95s or surgical masks if they are housed in isolation or quarantine space and moving around the housing unit for phones, showers, and other activities.
As a result of the surge, all prisons in the state are under a mandatory modified program that will continue until Monday, Dec. 28.
Ms. Simas said the modified program limits the movement of both staff and inmates between and throughout the institutions.
A memo on the plan was issued in late November around the same time the mask video was posted on the CDCR website.
There will be no contact visiting, no family visiting, and no mixing of inmates from one housing unit with another housing unit.
Occupancy will be reduced in the dayroom, and recreation will be allowed one housing unit or dorm at a time, with no mixing of inmates from one unit to the other.
An increased number of games, program materials, and reading books will be delivered to the housing units.