Last week, inewsource published Donovan Deaths, a two-part investigation into the only state prison in San Diego, the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. 

The series was full of new details about how the prison responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and what factors led to the deaths of 18 incarcerated people after a winter outbreak of the virus.

Experts say high rates of COVID-19 inside prisons and jails are a public health danger and put the surrounding community at risk. Staff, lawyers, delivery drivers and others frequently visit these facilities, leading to the virus potentially spreading on the inside and outside.

Here are our top five takeaways from the series.

1. Donovan’s response to the pandemic has been among the worst of California’s 35 prisons. It’s tied for the third-most COVID-19 deaths in the state. 

Donovan houses about 3,500 people, and almost half the population has high-risk medical conditions. 

During the height of the prison’s winter outbreak, a fifth of the people incarcerated at Donovan were infected. Some were relocated to large gymnasiums so staff could reach them quickly in an emergency. 

In a five-week span during December and January, 18 inmates died from the coronavirus. Only San Quentin in Marin County and the California Institute for Men in Chino have experienced more deaths.

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State corrections officials have acknowledged that Donovan was so overwhelmed by the winter outbreak, it was housing COVID-positive inmates with people who didn’t have the virus. It was also the only prison in California out of compliance with court orders to create enough wheelchair accessible beds in isolation areas when the surge in cases began.

The state’s prison oversight office found Donovan had issued its staff the most written citations in December of any prison for refusing to wear masks or practice social distancing. 

2. Three men who died from COVID-19 were found unresponsive in their cells.

Kenneth Sandlin, Ronald Johnson and Gilbert Rodriguez were all found dead or dying in their prison cells from COVID-19, according to public records inewsource obtained.  

The three men, all 65 or older with pre-existing medical conditions, died within eight days of each other shortly after Christmas.

The state corrections department insists that incarcerated people with COVID-19 are regularly monitored and transferred to hospitals if they need more intense care. But the stories of these three men reveal gaps in medical care provided to the ill.

“Nobody should be dying alone in a cell,” said Rebecca Fielding-Miller, an assistant professor of public health at UC San Diego. 

She added: “There’s a lot of things you can do to prevent that.”

3. The cellmate of one man who died says he was denied medical care. 

In a letter shared with inewsource, the cellmate of one of the men who died from COVID-19, Gilbert Rodriguez, said the 66-year-old coughed through the night after a positive test. When he asked for medical help with his cough, staff refused to provide it.

Rodriguez’s cough continued and he got little sleep for two nights, according to the cellmate. Then, he experienced what appeared to be a heart attack or stroke and died.

The cellmate wrote to Rodriguez’s two sons, telling them their father’s dying wish was that they know about the lack of medical help available inside the prison.

The corrections department wouldn’t answer questions about Rodriguez’s illness or death, citing medical privacy laws.

4. Families say they had no idea relatives had COVID-19 until after deaths occurred.

The corrections department’s own policies outline that it is supposed to inform emergency contacts when an inmate becomes seriously ill. But because of safety and security concerns, a spokesperson said, it doesn’t always do that when someone is transported to a hospital. 

We interviewed the families of five Donovan prisoners who died from the virus. None were told their relatives were sick with COVID-19 until after their deaths. Four of those families asked the prison about medical care or the prison conditions during the outbreak, but the facility would provide few details.

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“They didn’t tell us he was sick. They didn’t tell us nothing,” said Byron Porter, whose brother Earlie Paton, 67, died from the virus on Christmas Day.

The state prison system also wouldn’t tell inewsource reporters about what happened in these cases. The details included in our investigation were gathered from an extensive review of San Diego County medical examiner reports, legal proceedings, death certificates and interviews with the people close to those who died.

5. Six people at Donovan weren’t diagnosed with COVID-19 until they ended up in the hospital.

Corrections officials say Donovan inmates were tested weekly in December and January.

But six Donovan prisoners who died during that time weren’t diagnosed with COVID-19 until they were transported to the hospital, according to medical examiner reports. No available records suggest any of them were tested before being hospitalized.

Lawyers at the Prison Law Office, which represents people incarcerated at California correctional facilities, found at least two Donovan inmates who died from the virus had not received COVID-19 testing after prison doctors ordered the tests.

Donovan has denied issues with access to coronavirus testing.

Do you know someone incarcerated at Donovan or have a story tip for our reporters? Email jillcastellano@inewsource.org or maryplummer@inewsource.org

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Jill Castellano is an investigative data reporter for inewsource. When she's not deep in a spreadsheet or holed up reporting and writing her next story, she's probably hiking, running or rock climbing. She also loves playing board games and discussing the latest chapters with her book club. Jill...

Mary Plummer is an investigative reporter at inewsource who covers infrastructure and government accountability stories. She’s been a reporter, editor and radio producer in Southern California for more than 10 years. Her reporting has ranged from major breaking news, such as covering some of...