There are more than 1,300 active coronavirus infections at San Quentin State Penitentiary in Marin County, according to state officials. (Julie Vader/Shutterstock)

California releasing most prison inmates 12 weeks early to clear space amid coronavirus

California prisons will release inmates as early as 12 weeks ahead of their original sentencing starting next month, a credit announced this week to clear space during the coronavirus pandemic.

Citing the devastating outbreaks that have already swept through its prisons and the need to implement better social distancing, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced Thursday in a letter to inmates and a memo to staff that it will give “Positive Programming Credits” worth 12 weeks to most incarcerated statewide.

With exceptions for those on death row, those serving life sentences without the possibility of parole and those found guilty of serious rules violations since March 1 while in prison, all other inmates will get the credit applied Aug. 1, CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz wrote. Prisons are expected to start releasing qualifying inmates shortly after that date.

According to COVID-19 data maintained on the CDCR website, 31 inmates have died and more than 5,700 have tested positive across the state prison system, with nearly 2,300 of those cases active as of Thursday. The worst outbreak is ongoing at San Quentin, where there are more than 1,300 active infections, 300 “resolved” cases and seven fatalities, including at least three who died while on death row.

The department reported 719 active cases in CDCR employees as of Thursday, more than 200 of them at San Quentin.

In a July 1 hearing, California lawmakers attributed San Quentin’s outbreak to a “horribly botched transfer” from the California Institution for Men in Chino. Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, called it the “worst prison health screwup in state history.”

CDCR in April released about 3,500 inmates whose sentences ended within the following 60 days, except those convicted for violent crimes and those who must register as sex offenders.

Diaz wrote in Thursday’s letter that CDCR is “exploring other options” beyond expedited releases.

“To continue to effectively fight this virus, we must create more space in our prisons, both to expand physical distancing to slow COVID-19’s spread and to ease some of the immense challenges staff face every day,” Diaz wrote.

CDCR has about 112,000 inmates in its custody, according to a weekly report released Wednesday.

-By Michael McGough, The Sacramento Bee

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