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Fifth COVID case: "This release did not have to happen"

April 17, 2020 — Mendocino County has a fifth confirmed case of COVID-19, in a former inmate who was recently released from Chino State Prison for men, which, as of April 16th, had 69 confirmed cases among staff and inmates. 

The inmate was originally not scheduled to be released until May, but he got out early because of the COVID-19 emergency. He is currently in Ukiah with a family member, and both are supposed to stay put. The man is technically still under the jurisdiction of the Stanislaus County probation department, which is in the process of transferring him to Mendocino County.

That county’s sheriff forwarded an email from the Stanislaus County’s public health officer to Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall. The memo states that the former inmate, who remains asymptomatic, had a known exposure to people who were ill with COVID-19. Kendall, reading from the memo, said, “The inmate...will be separated and quarantined for the next fourteen days, to be sure he is past the incubation period of COVID-19.” That was on April 7th, meaning his quarantine should have ended on April 21st. But the inmate was released the next day.

Mendocino County Chief Probation Officer Izan Locatelli said the newly released man called in to his probation officer on April 9th, from Ukiah. He was tested on April 16th, and his test came back positive the next day. Locatelli related the former inmate’s description of his journey to Mendocino County from Chino, which is in San Bernardino County. KZYX has not confirmed this account with prison officials in Chino or the former inmate.  

“We talked about that very thing, trying to understand how many exposures he’s had in our county, or across the state,” Locatelli said. “He told me that there was a mass release of them, thirty to forty inmates, as he described it, and they were taken out of the prison three at a time, in vans, and dropped off at the Greyhound bus stop in Chino. His intention was to take the Greyhound back here, but it just so happened that another inmate’s family was at that stop, and they offered to take him all the way to Sacramento. So he did go to Sacramento, and was dropped off at the Greyhound there, where he was picked up by the family member which he currently resides with. That person brought him the rest of the way to Ukiah, where they remain.”

Violent offenders are not eligible for the emergency COVID-19 early release program, but Locatelli says the former inmate has a strike against him for assault with a deadly weapon. Ukiah Police Chief Justin Wyatt is not happy to have this case in his community, and thinks it is due to a long-time systemic shortcoming. “During a crisis like we’re in, the weaknesses of any system will be brought forward to bear, and that’s what’s happening right now,” he noted, saying that with prison realignment, “these grey areas occur all the time with these kind of releases...and I think it’s important for the community to understand that.” Wyatt also laid out the pros and cons. The infected former inmate is in the county seat, which Wyatt thinks makes it “easier to try to mitigate and control this problem, but the potential for spread is also a lot greater.”

Locatelli says he expects his department will come up with a way to monitor the patient, whether it be by using a phone app or an electronic device or expensive round-the-clock monitoring. Like Wyatt, he has a bone to pick with the state. “We have some great opportunity to share with the state, this is actually the exact fact pattern and how this came to be about,” he said. “This release did not have to happen.”


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