A coronavirus outbreak exploding through San Quentin State Prison has reached Death Row, where more than 160 condemned prisoners are infected, sources told The Chronicle on Thursday.
One condemned inmate, 71-year-old Richard Eugene Stitely, was found dead Wednesday night. Officials are determining the cause of death and checking to see whether he was infected.
State prison officials declined to confirm that the virus has spread to Death Row, but three sources familiar with the details of the outbreak there provided The Chronicle with information on the condition they not be named, and in accordance with the paper’s anonymous source policy. Two of the sources are San Quentin employees who are not authorized to speak publicly and feared losing their jobs.
There are 725 condemned inmates at San Quentin, and of those who agreed to be tested for the coronavirus, 166 tested positive, the sources said.
They include 136 prisoners in East Block, which exclusively houses people on Death Row, and 30 from a portion of the Donner building, which acts as an extension of housing for the condemned population.
Prison officials do not force the in-custody population to be tested, said prison spokeswoman Dana Simas.
“If inmates refuse they are held in quarantine for a minimum of 14 days out of an abundance of caution,” she said in an email.
“It’s an aging population on Death Row,” said Marylou Hillberg, a Sebastopol attorney in private practice who represents two condemned men and said she has visited the prison to speak with Death Row clients for nearly 20 years. “There’s a lot of folks who have medical conditions that make them especially fragile: heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, hypertension.”
She said she was worried about her clients and felt “totally helpless to do anything for them.”
Stitely was found unresponsive in his single cell at 8:38 p.m. Wednesday, according to prison officials. He was pronounced dead less than 30 minutes later.
Officials said there were no signs of trauma. His cause of death and coronavirus status will be determined by the Marin County coroner, and the state Office of Inspector General is overseeing the prison’s investigation into his death.
Stitely was convicted in Los Angeles County for the rape and murder of 47-year-old Carol Unger, who was last seen leaving a bar in Reseda with Stitely on Jan. 19, 1990. A jury sentenced Stitely to death on Sept. 14, 1992, and he was admitted in Death Row on Sept. 23, 1992.
It is unclear whether Stitely was infected with the coronavirus. He refused to be tested, according to the three sources with knowledge of the situation.
If Stitely tests postive, his death could mark the first coronavirus fatality in California’s oldest prison, where prisoner cases have rocketed from zero infections in late May to 515 by Thursday evening. Additionally, 73 San Quentin staff members have tested positive.
The infections were touched off by a botched transfer of 121 men on May 30 from the virus-swamped California Institution for Men in Chino, which until Thursday was the state prison with the largest number of infected inmates.
San Quentin has surpassed Chino’s current tally of 507 cases, and now holds more incarcerated people who have tested positive for the virus than anywhere else in the state. There have been more than 4,000 confirmed cases throughout California’s prison systems, with 20 prisoner deaths attributed to COVID-19. Sixteen of those deaths came from the California Institution for Men in Chino.
As of Thursday, there were 16 San Quentin prisoners who were receiving care from outside hospitals because of COVID-19 complications, according to Liz Gransee, a spokeswoman for the prison’s health care system.
Nearly two weeks ago, a team of UC Berkeley and UCSF health experts warned prison medical officials that they’d need to cut San Quentin’s population in half to avoid a potentially catastrophic outbreak there.
In response to the virus, prison officials have expedited the parole of some people and paused intakes from county jails, but have yet to allow the type of widespread releases that health and prison reform advocates say are necessary.
Gransee said officials are utilizing the information provided by UC Berkeley and UCSF, “along with lessons learned from ongoing response efforts,” to address the outbreak at San Quentin and other institutions.
Details of the joint effort between prison and prison health officials “are being finalized,” she said in an email.
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Anonymous sources: The Chronicle strives to attribute all information we report to credible, reliable, identifiable sources. Presenting information from an anonymous source occurs extremely rarely, and only when that information is considered crucially important and all other on-the-record options have been exhausted. In such cases, The Chronicle has complete knowledge of the unnamed person’s identity and of how that person is in position to know the information. The Chronicle’s detailed policy governing the use of such sources, including the use of pseudonyms, is available on SFChronicle.com.