Buildings at the Richard J. Donovan state prison in Otay Mesa are shown on Dec. 21, 2018. (Megan Wood/inewsource)

A COVID-19 outbreak at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa has forced the facility back on lockdown, but officials are refusing to clarify the scope of the problem, leaving families and advocates frustrated at the prison’s handling of the health emergency. 

Why this matters

Incarcerated people have higher rates of pre-existing conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19, and the virus can spread quickly once inside jails and prisons.

More than 1,000 prisoners at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

A spokesperson for the state corrections department confirmed Wednesday that multiple staff members at Donovan have contracted the virus, leading the facility to temporarily cancel in-person visits and reinforce restrictions on the thousands of people living there.

Throughout the week, the department stood by the outdated COVID-19 data on its website — which listed only four staff cases and no inmate cases — saying it was accurate, despite conflicting reports from other sources. On Friday, six days after visits were canceled, the number of infected staff listed on the website jumped to 10.

Sources inside the prison indicate the updated numbers are still an undercount. One inmate said a corrections officer announced on a loudspeaker earlier this week that 15 incarcerated people had active COVID-19 infections.

Staff COVID-19 numbers are updated on the state’s website on Fridays. Prison officials refused to provide more updated information during the week, leaving the public in the dark about the rapidly changing situation at Donovan.

A prison program volunteer and a current inmate both told inewsource this week that the number of cases at Donovan was higher than what was shown online. Plus, in an email exchange with a prison rights advocate obtained by inewsource, a Donovan spokesperson acknowledged Tuesday that the state’s website was incorrect but didn’t provide any other details.

Invest in more accountability journalism in your community

A donation to inewsource helps us continue to produce the kind of impact-driven reporting that our readers depend on.

After canceling in-person visitation about a week earlier, the website was updated Friday to show that some in-person visits would be allowed immediately.

Terri Hardy, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said that the prison is in Phase 1, the most restrictive COVID-19 tier, which “occurs when a facility has three or more cases of active COVID-19 or is recovering from a recent outbreak.” 

Donovan warden Marcus Pollard declined an interview request through a spokesperson.

Donovan Deaths: An Investigation

Read the two-part inewsource investigation here.

The uptick in cases comes after a winter outbreak at Donovan led to more than 700 infections and 18 deaths of incarcerated people, as well as one staff death. Its numbers are among the worst in California: Donovan currently ranks fourth for the most inmate COVID-19 deaths statewide.

“We don’t want the same thing to happen as last time,” said Mary Estrada, a Pomona resident whose husband has been incarcerated at Donovan for six years. “We don’t want another 18 people to die.”

Beginning in March 2020, the relatives of Donovan prisoners were denied in-person visitations for more than 13 months because of the pandemic. They were allowed to renew limited visits starting April 11. The following weekend, on April 17, families received unexpected emails from Donovan with the news that visits were canceled indefinitely — without any explanation for the change.

Since then, families have been scrambling to understand what caused the sudden reversal and whether their loved ones are in danger inside the facility. They’ve called and emailed Donovan officials, hunted for new details on the state’s website, spoken with inmates and conferred with each other in Facebook groups.

But the information they’ve gathered has yet to offer a clear picture of the outbreak at San Diego’s only prison.

For five days, the corrections department’s website incorrectly stated that some in-person visits were happening at Donovan. It was finally updated Wednesday to reflect the prison was only offering video visits. The phone number listed on that page still provides inaccurate visitation information and directs callers to a phone number for Donovan that has a full voicemail box.

Estrada called Donovan officials throughout the week to get an explanation for the lockdown, but each attempt was futile.

“We just got our visits back and they take them away from us,” Estrada said. “Why? We deserve an answer.”

Sign up for our newsletter

Get the latest local investigations sent to your inbox.

Success! You're on the list.

On Friday, the state’s website was updated again, stating in-person visits would be renewed for inmates living in one of Donovan’s six housing areas, and the five others were transitioning to a “hybrid model” that includes video visits and limited in-person visits.

Donovan has one of the highest vaccination rates for state prison inmates — 74% are fully inoculated — but the number of vaccinated staff members is lagging at 48%.

Despite the widespread vaccinations, four incarcerated men — including one who works in a medical clinic at the prison — reported that they’d heard of inmates who were positive for COVID-19 or who were being quarantined because of the outbreak.

Some criminal justice researchers believe there are significant problems with official tallies of coronavirus cases and deaths occurring in jails and prisons around the state. An inewsource investigation this year found multiple inconsistencies in government death counts — officials at the state and local level should have been capturing the same number of deaths from COVID-19 at California prisons, but the numbers did not match. 

Angela Cadena, whose husband was transferred to Donovan from California State Prison, Corcoran, in September, said she is angry that the prison hasn’t been forthcoming, and she doesn’t trust the COVID-19 data available online.

“Can we take those numbers seriously? I highly doubt it,” she said. Cadena speaks with her husband on the phone every day and was able to see him in person recently for the first time in more than a year. 

Donovan has been accused in multiple ongoing lawsuits of failing to provide proper medical care before and during the pandemic. 

It’s among several prisons in the state that have come under scrutiny for mismanaging COVID-19. Earlier this year, San Quentin State Prison was fined more than $400,000 for workplace violations and was cited for not reporting coronavirus illnesses or deaths of employees. And the California Office of the Inspector General issued a blistering three-part series of reports saying officials did not adhere to basic safety protocols at prisons up and down the state.

“Throughout all of this, from an outsider’s perspective, it can be hard to make rational sense of some of the prison practices and policies that we’ve seen over the past year,” said Naomi Sugie, an associate criminology professor at UC Irvine.

The latest outbreak at Donovan comes weeks after surveillance cameras were installed at the prison because of a class action lawsuit claiming corrections staff are abusing disabled inmates.

Cadena believes the behaviors of Donovan’s correctional officers — including refusing to get vaccinated — are responsible for the new outbreak and lockdown.

“The families, we’re the ones that suffer,” Cadena said. “We’re the ones that can’t see our loved ones. We pay the price.” 

Type of Content

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

Mary Plummer is a former editor and investigative reporter for inewsource. Her reporting has ranged from major breaking news, such as covering some of California’s deadliest wildfires and mass shootings, to intensive beat reporting. Her investigations have uncovered failings in the state prison system...

Jill Castellano is a former investigative data coordinator 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....