LOS ANGELES — Midway through explaining how an inmate who'd tested positive for COVID-19 had been placed in his unit at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, Gary Croom paused.

"Here," he told a reporter. "I'm going to give him the phone."

Saddled with guilt, worried he might touch off a resurgence of the disease that swept through the prison on the eastern edge of Riverside County a month ago, Alejandro Cantu took the phone.

Last week, Cantu explained, he broke his leg playing basketball on the yard and was taken to John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Indio.

Cantu, 34, had first tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, about a month earlier. Before undergoing surgery, he was tested again. The results came back five days ago, he said: still positive.

After the surgery, Cantu was brought back to Chuckawalla on Monday, he said. Despite his diagnosis, the prison staff placed him in a pod — a small, enclosed space where inmates bunk a few feet apart — that houses 11 other men, none of them infected, Cantu said.

"They brought him in," Croom, his bunk mate, recalled, "and he said, 'You guys don't have COVID?'"

Cantu said he told a sergeant he'd recently tested positive for COVID-19, but the sergeant brushed it off, saying that because he'd first tested positive for the disease a month ago, he could no longer transmit the disease. The sergeant, Cantu said, essentially told him "it wasn't a big deal."

Whether or not he is contagious, Cantu questioned why he wasn't placed in quarantine or at least in a building that houses infected inmates.

A spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

His bunk mates are terrified of him, and Cantu worries he might trigger a second outbreak of COVID-19, which raced through Chuckawalla in June, infecting nearly 1,000 inmates — 44% of the prison's population — in a three-week span. It was one of the worst outbreaks to hit the California prison system.

"I'm concerned about someone getting really sick," he said. "I'm concerned about someone dying."

As of Thursday, 1,607 inmates in the California prison system were infected with COVID-19. To free up space in the state's chronically overcrowded prisons, Ralph Diaz, the prison system's secretary, announced earlier this month that 8,000 additional inmates would be released early.

From the onset of the pandemic in March through July, the prison system has overseen "one of the largest reductions in state prison population in recent history," a spokesperson said in a daily update Thursday evening. By suspending intake from jails and hastening the releases of some 10,000 inmates, the prison system has cut the number of people in its custody by 16,000. Its incarcerated population is below 100,000 people for the first time since 1990, the update said.

Staff have managed to rein in the outbreak at Chuckawalla; as of Thursday, only four inmates were infected with COVID-19, and the prison recorded just three new cases in the last two weeks, according to figures compiled by the state prison system.

Yet given the cramped confines at Chuckawalla, which was designed to house 1,738 inmates but currently holds 2,119, some in the lockup worry an outbreak could flare up at any time.

"Just like a forest fire in a dry forest, it would burn right through here," Robert McBride, an inmate, said in a phone interview. "You can't get away from people in here. You're sleeping mouth wide open, snoring, three feet away from the next bunk."

McBride, 59, has spent nearly 13 years in prison for robbery. His release date is in December, and the closer that date comes, the more he fears catching COVID-19, he said.

"I'm so, so close to going home right now," he said.

McBride lives in the same building as Cantu, whose placement in their largely COVID-free building has caused a minor "hysteria," he said.

McBride criticized the prison administration's handling of Cantu's situation, saying the episode was emblematic of an indifference that has pervaded the prison's response to the pandemic.

"I'm not privy to every directive they have to answer to," he said, "but it all just seems so backward to me."


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