Several dozen family members gathered at the gates of the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi Thursday morning to speak out about concerns after a surge of confirmed coronavirus infections were recorded inside the prison starting last month.

The peaceful protest lasted about an hour.

Several family members reached out to Tehachapi News to voice their concerns about about how their loved ones at CCI are being treated. Their chief complaints included inmates being housed with other inmates who exhibit symptoms of the virus, lack of medical care, lack of hygiene products including hand sanitizer and lack of testing.

"Basic human rights is our issue. They are not receiving basic human rights, and they are in danger," said Renee Boriso, whose husband is incarcerated at CCI.

Boriso said her husband has been tested once for the virus, and the test came back negative. He wears a bandanna over his face for a mask. As with all other inmates, Boriso said her husband receives a small bar of "hotel soap" once a week for bathing and washing his hands.

During the protest, Nadia Erwin, CCI public information officer, came outside and addressed the prison's efforts to deal with the virus.

Following the protest, Terri Hardy, spokesperson for CDCR, responded to some of the inmates' accusations via email.

"The top priority for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is the health and safety of those who live and work in the prison, and in the surrounding community. Corrections and medical staff at California Correctional Institution are working with public health and health care experts to address this unprecedented pandemic and have continued to enhance health and safety measures at our institutions," wrote Hardy.

According to Hardy, inmates who test positive and/or are symptomatic are isolated from other inmates. Staff nurses tend to the inmates twice a day; those in need of emergent care are seen by onsite providers or transferred to hospitals, according to protocol.

CCI is following CDC guidelines concerning cleaning and sanitation, and hand sanitizer is provided for both staff and inmates. Each inmate has received five reusable masks, Hardy wrote.

"Movement in the housing facilities is modified, with no intermingling between units. Use of the yard and dining hall is rotated and social distancing is enforced," wrote Hardy.

To date, CCI has completed 3,530 COVID-19 tests of the incarcerated population and testing is ongoing. Staff are tested and retested every two weeks, wrote Hardy.

The protest was the second of its kind for loved ones of inmates, marching under the name We Are Their Voices. The first march took place July 16 in Sacramento, beginning at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation headquarters. From there, marchers made their way to the capitol and ended at the home of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Sally Aranda, a Bakersfield resident, said her husband and cousin are both incarcerated at CCI. Aranda said her husband received one test, and was told he was negative for coronavirus. However, he claims to be housed surrounded by other inmates who display obvious symptoms of the virus. Her cousin was also tested once, and is expecting to get back a positive result for coronavirus as he is symptomatic.

"I have been sending him vitamins because it takes him about three days to get a simple Tylenol for his fever," Aranda said. "We just want him taken care of just like a person in the outside world. We know that he has done something wrong, and we don't cover that, but a human deserves proper attention."

Joy Winter said her son, who is also incarcerated at CCI, has tested positive for COVID-19.

"He told me on July 9 that he thought he was going to die, and that he couldn't get a breath of air and felt like an elephant was sitting on his chest," said Winter.

Winter claims her son had not received any medication up until July 22.

In a recent letter written to his mother, Winter's son wrote: "No one died because of my poor choices and actions. How can they feel OK doing something on a greater scale to the ones they kept behind the bars?"

Laura Sanchez, of Pasadena, was among the protesters, and said she just wants to be a voice for the inmates.

Said Sanchez, "They are there for a reason, but they are not there to die."

As of Thursday morning, the CDCR website posted 248 active virus in-custody cases at CCI, with 156 of these cases tracked in the last 14 days. A total of 23 inmates with the active virus were released from custody, and 67 inmates with the virus had recovered, or were "resolved." 

No deaths were reported at the Tehachapi prison site.

Also reported on the CDCR website was the cumulative confirmed cases of CCI employees, with 109 confirmed cases, of which 17 people had reportedly returned to work.

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