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California Will Release Up To 8,000 Prisoners Due To Coronavirus

California will release up to 8,000 prisoners this summer in an effort to create more space and prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 in prisons.

News of the plan comes after more than a third of the inmates and staff at the San Quentin State Prison in the San Francisco Bay Area tested positive for the coronavirus.

Anyone who is eligible for release will be tested for the coronavirus within seven days of their return to society, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said.

California's state prison system currently reports 5,841 coronavirus cases among inmates — a rise of more than 860 cases in two weeks. Another 1,222 employees have also been infected.

"These actions are taken to provide for the health and safety of the incarcerated population and staff," California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Ralph Diaz said. "We aim to implement these decompression measures in a way that aligns both public health and public safety."

More than half of the prisoners could be released this month. The corrections department says it's reviewing the roster of prisoners who have fewer than 180 days left on their sentences; it anticipates roughly 4,800 people could be eligible for release by the end of July.

To be freed, prisoners must meet certain criteria — including that they are not incarcerated for domestic violence or other violent crime, and that they won't have to register as sex offenders.

The outbreak at San Quentin has been blamed on a transfer of more than 100 prisoners from the California Institution for Men in Chino — another crowded prison that was already reporting hundreds of coronavirus cases. Many of those inmates had not been tested adequately before being moved, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

San Quentin had not reported any cases in the first two months of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the prison now has 1,336 cases among people in custody. An additional 205 cases have been diagnosed among its employees.

Some inmates at San Quentin and the California Institution for Men in Chino will now be eligible for early release. The corrections department said it will look to release prisoners who meet its criteria, have a year or less remaining on their sentence, and are incarcerated at "institutions that house large populations of high-risk patients."

Folsom State Prison and five other facilities are also included in the plan. Inmates at the prisons who are age 30 and older and who meet the eligibility criteria "are immediately eligible for release," the agency said. Younger inmates will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

In addition to the pending releases, the corrections department said it has already reduced the population in its institutions by more than 10,000 inmates since mid-March.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.