Women at Risk as COVID-19 Strikes State Prisons in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties

Women at Risk as COVID-19 Strikes State Prisons in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties

S.E. Williams | Contributor


Across California there are at minimum 436 incarcerated persons—men and women—confined and struggling to stay alive with active cases of COVID-19.

These numbers are based on the latest data regarding those in state custody provided by the California Department of Corrections And Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS).

In addition, as of Wednesday, May 13, 2020 there were 79 active COVID-19 cases among CDCR/CCHCS employees statewide. The cumulative number of cases among employees, totals 187, of which, 108 have returned to work.

Although much is written—and rightly so—about the plight of men in prison during the COVID-19 pandemic and acknowledging to date, most of the COVID-19 cases in California state prisons involve men,  there is mounting concern about the fate of women in these facilities.

The number of women in prison has grown exponentially in America in recent years at twice the rate of men. This is particularly true for Black women who are three times more likely than their White peers to be incarcerated. In 2017 according to the Public Policy Institute of California, of the state’s 5,849 female prisoners, 25.9 percent were Black. In California, African American women are imprisoned at a rate of 171 per 100,000. This is more than five times the imprisonment rate of White women in 2017—30 per 100,000.

Last month, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and the Young Women’s Freedom Center while challenging the abusive conditions in the state’s facilities for women, pled with state officials to protect inmates at the California Institution for Women (CIW) and the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla after an employee there tested positive for COVID-19.

There are now reports of an outbreak among female inmates at the California Institution for Women in Corona located in Riverside County. According to CDCR, they worked with public health officials last week after a few women reported feeling ill and increased testing at the site.

CDCR confirmed 200 tests were conducted at the facility on Friday, May 8 and 200 additional tests were completed on Tuesday, May 12.


We are seeing an increase in positive cases,” CDCR reported. Inmates who tested positive and are asymptomatic are now being housed in a previously unoccupied housing unit.

Officials have placed the entire facility on quarantine, severely limited internal movement and ceased any activity not conducive to social distancing. Those who test positive for COVID-19 and are experiencing symptoms are being treated at the prison’s health center and if necessary, transferred to an outside hospital.

Meanwhile, there is another COVID-19 outbreak at another state prison facility in the Inland Empire. This one is occurring at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in San Bernardino County.

Since then, according to CDCR, “[T]he institution [has] worked closely with county public health officials to increase testing efforts – including those who are asymptomatic.”

“Results have started to come back from lab testing, and we are seeing an increase of positive cases. The patients are mostly asymptomatic,” the agency explained and further qualified, “As testing and results are being coordinated with San Bernardino, data will be manually entered on the patient tracker as it is received.

CIW has committed to taking immediate steps to prevent potential further spread and provide timely, appropriate care to those experiencing symptoms. It will also use a previously unoccupied 120-bed housing unit for isolation of asymptomatic individuals with confirmed cases as they continue working with the institution and local officials to monitor the situation and adjust, as needed. 

Reacting to the COVID-19 pandemic in April, CDCR released 3,500 non-violent state prison inmates to help ease overcrowding.

About The Author

S.E. Williams

Stephanie E. Williams is an award winning investigative reporter, editor and activist who has contributed to several Inland Empire publications. Williams spent more than thirty years as a middle-manager in the telecommunications industry before retiring to pursue her passion as a reporter and non-fiction writer. Beyond writing, Williams’ personal interests include stone-carving, drumming and sculpting.

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