Richard J. Donovan Correctional Institution in Otay Mesa is featured on December 21, 2018. Among those incarcerated at the State Prison, there are inmates convicted of murder.
Richard J. Donovan Correctional Institution in Otay Mesa is featured on December 21, 2018. Among those incarcerated at the State Prison, there are inmates convicted of murder. (Megan Wood / inewsource)

By Jill Castellano and Mary Plummer | inewsource

Medical staff at Donovan State Prison in San Diego have asked inmates who refuse the COVID-19 test to waive the prison responsibility for their illness or death – a move a medical expert deemed contrary ethics and which a law professor has declared may be unconstitutional.

A copy of waiver form, obtained by inewsource, describes the risks of refusing the COVID-19 test and says the correctional service is “not responsible” for complications resulting from the virus. Inmates who refuse testing can sign their name next to a witness’s name.

An inmate from Donovan interviewed by inewsource said he saw the form in use in his living area last month, around the time the prison returned to lockout due to a new outbreak of COVID-19. Prison officials declined to confirm details of how the form was used during the pandemic, why they are asking inmates to sign them, or how many have been signed.


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Peter Chin-Hong, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at UC San Francisco, said he was very concerned when he reviewed a copy of the form.

“It’s not appropriate,” said Chin-Hong, who has treated and monitored COVID-19 patients health issues at San Quentin State Prison during the pandemic. Trying to relinquish responsibility for refusing a medical test would not be tolerated in private or community practice, he said, and would cause anger and frustration in patients.

“People would revolt in the streets,” he added.

A photo of this form, obtained and redacted by inewsource, calls on inmates at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Center in Otay Mesa to exonerate the prison from liability for complications from COVID-19 if the inmate refuses a coronavirus test.

Chin-Hong said the form raises ethical concerns. It can be difficult for those in prison to understand the implications of his signing, he said, especially given the high rates of developmental disabilities and mental illness among inmates.

Donovan, which is a statewide hub for inmates in need of mental health and disability services, faces legal action over his handling of the pandemic. A massive winter epidemic in prison sickened more than 700 people, resulting in the deaths of 18 inmates and one staff member.

Among California’s 35 state prisons, Donovan has the fourth highest death toll from COVID-19. It’s also amid other issues: in January, it became the state’s first prison to require prison officers to wear body cameras – a move a federal judge ordered in litigation ongoing on allegations of mistreatment of disabled detainees.

A spokesperson for the agency that oversees health care in California prisons declined multiple interview requests. She said the form was standard and used for any denial of examination or treatment, not just related to COVID-19, but did not explain if other prisons are using it for coronavirus testing. She also defended the prison system’s response to the pandemic.

COVID-19 in Donovan

  • state correction numbers show that on Monday an incarcerated person had COVID-19, with six staff members.
  • In the past two weeks, 21% of inmates had taken COVID-19 tests, the fourth lowest testing rate among California prisons.
  • Less than half of staff and 75% of inmates are fully immunized.
  • Some the visit is authorized, and Donovan is operating under the COVID-19 restrictions that officials describe as Phase 2.

“We take the health and safety of our residents and staff very seriously,” said Liz Gransee, spokesperson for California Health Corrections, in an email.

Hadar Aviram, a lawyer and law professor at UC Hastings, called the form “misleading” and said it could violate the Eighth Amendment, which protects felony defendants from cruel and unusual punishment.

“They are wards of the state. You host them for a number of months or years. And during those months, you have to feed and clothe them, take care of them, and make sure they don’t get sick. It is part of your responsibility, ”she said. “I don’t think any form can waive this responsibility.”

The incarcerated man, who inewsource did not name because he fears for his safety and possible reprisals, said he regretted signing the form. He said medical staff made an announcement about the COVID-19 test and asked anyone who did not want the test to line up, then handed them a pen.

“They just leave it up to you to interpret it,” he said, never explaining the form or saying that would waive the responsibility of the prison.

“You don’t really notice it unless you are looking for it. It’s really safe, ”he said. “So, I felt quite played.”

He said the form was not offered to him on any of the times he had refused the COVID-19 vaccine.

Donovan’s death: an investigation

Prison lawyers and advocates have highlighted many reasons why inmates refuse to be tested for COVID-19. Some fear they will be forced into individual cells if they test positive, which may sound like solitary confinement.

Others fear being transferred to large gyms used for COVID-19 isolation where their disabilities may not be taken care of. The incarcerated man questioned by inewsource also said he saw Donovan’s medical staff use the same gloves to test multiple people, raising fears of catching the virus while being swabbed.

“There are people with really bad autoimmune systems and all kinds of stuff here,” he said, adding that he was shocked that the gloves had not been changed. “I couldn’t believe it.

Have you or someone you know had an experience with Donovan Prison that you would like to share? Tell us your story by emailing [email protected]

Penny Godbold, a San Francisco lawyer who represents inmates with disabilities, said incarcerated people have limited access to information beyond what prison staff say – and they often don’t trust it. as the staff tells them.

“It is possible that they provide very good information, but there is a real distrust among the incarcerated towards anyone who works in the prison,” Godbold said.

Jody Rich, a doctor and epidemiologist at Brown University, said denial forms are used regularly by correctional facilities across the U.S. Rich, who worked in Rhode Island jails during the pandemic, said that the documentation of refusals to test for COVID-19 had some value. It can help institutions better understand why people refuse testing and be used to resolve barriers.

But Rich said some of the language in Donovan’s form went too far.

“It seemed to imply that if you don’t take this test you could die,” he said, explaining that healthcare professionals are still responsible for responding appropriately to symptoms and treating patients who refuse them. tests. “I would never say that to a patient, that you could die if you don’t pass this test.”


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