Bipartisan Legislative Leaders Call for Removal of Prison Healthcare Receiver J. Clark Kelso

For immediate release:

(SACRAMENTO, CA) – After the botched management of the COVID-19 pandemic inside California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) institutions, leading to over 15,000 infections and 69 deaths of incarcerated people, a bipartisan coalition of legislative leaders today called upon federal Judge Jon S. Tigar to immediately remove Receiver J. Clark Kelso from his position and replace with an individual committed to protect the health and safety of incarcerated persons, staff and the public. The letter was signed by Assemblymembers Marc Levine (D – Marin County), Republican Leader Marie Waldron (R – Escondido), Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Gipson (D – Carson), Bill Quirk (D - Hayward), Sydney Kamlager (D – Los Angeles) and Wendy Carrillo (D – Los Angeles).

Mr. Kelso’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic at CDCR correctional facilities resulted in the worst public health disaster in CDCR history. The number of condemned inmates that have died from COVID-19 now equals the number of people that have been legally executed in the state since passage of Proposition 7 in 1978. Constitutionally protected due process rights have been denied to these individuals who will never receive full justice under the law because of Mr. Kelso’s reckless actions.

Additionally, Mr. Kelso’s careless decisions have led to nearly 4,000 CDCR staff testing positive and ten staff dying from COVID-19. Any objective analysis of this crisis would conclude that Mr. Kelso has fundamentally failed his responsibility to protect the health and safety of incarcerated people. In the letter, legislators pled with Judge Tigar that Kelso must be removed before more people die from his harmful leadership.

Legislative leaders warned of this preventable crisis since April of this year. At that time, legislators raised concerns with CDCR leadership that neither CDCR staff nor Receiver Kelso had developed site specific plans or coordination efforts with county public health offices to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at any of the 35 state prisons under the jurisdiction of CDCR.

In early May, Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County’s Public Health Officer said, “prisons are high risk settings for large outbreaks, and if there’s a spike in cases at San Quentin we know we’ll be engaged in the response. With a clear, site specific plan we can react more quickly to protect the entire community.” Dr. Willis’ call for action was ignored and as a result, over 2,100 incarcerated people were infected and 23 incarcerated people have died at San Quentin State Prison.

On May 30, a series poorly managed actions directed by Mr. Kelso and carried out by CDCR staff, transferred 121 inmates from the California Institution for Men in Chino to San Quentin State Prison, none of whom were tested for COVID-19 immediately prior to the transfer. The inmate bus transfer itself exposed inmates to the virus and once arriving at San Quentin, transferred inmates were quickly comingled with the existing inmate population, endangering thousands of inmates and staff at the prison. Transferred inmates were then housed at upper levels of the Badger Unit prison block, making it easier for any inmate vapor to fall upon other inmates below. Chino inmates were also transferred to other CDCR facilities across the state, creating a potential spike of COVID-19 infections at other prisons.

On a call with legislative leaders in late June, Mr. Kelso acknowledged that his decision to transfer inmates from Chino to San Quentin was done “too quickly,” was a “self-inflicted wound” and a “big mistake.” In recent weeks, additional reports of COVID-19 infection spikes at Folsom State Prison, the California Rehabilitation Center, Atascadero State Prison, Chuckawalla Valley State Prison and other facilities have demonstrated that Mr. Kelso is still either unwilling or unable to take appropriate actions necessary to protect the health and safety of incarcerated people at CDCR institutions. Mr. Kelso must be held accountable for his actions.

“Mr. Kelso’s failure to listen to local health officials and careless approach to preventing the spread of COVID-19 has placed incarcerated people, staff and the public at risk of further coronavirus infection,” said Assemblymember Marc Levine. “California needs a competent Receiver leading efforts to protect inmates and provide appropriate and constitutionally protected healthcare at state prisons. Mr. Kelso has shown that he cannot do the job and must be removed and replaced immediately.”

A copy of the letter from legislators to Judge Tigar can be found HERE.