Melford Henson, Construction Foreman, Dies at 65


This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Melford Henson was supposed to be released from the California Institution for Men, a minimum-security prison in Chino, Calif., in December.

He was living in a wing called Elm Hall, designed to hold about 150 people. But the size of the hall didn’t allow for proper social distancing, and he had previous health issues, including heart attacks and hepatitis C, which put him at high risk if he contracted the coronavirus.

In April, Mr. Henson told his family that he believed he had caught Covid-19 from a fellow inmate who he learned had tested positive for the virus. Mr. Henson had been helping him move around the facility by pushing his wheelchair.

Mr. Henson died on May 6 of the disease at a hospital in Chino, his wife, Tracy, said. His prison has the largest outbreak of the novel coronavirus within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Jails and prisons nationwide have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

On the day Mr. Henson died, the prison’s population was 3,354, and as of Tuesday, 3,022 of them had been tested for the virus, according to the California prisons website. There were 593 confirmed cases at the prison, and the six California inmates who have died had all been held there.

Melford Raymond Henson Jr. was born on Nov. 10, 1954, in Riverside, Calif. His mother, Evelyn (Brooks) Henson, and his father raised him in Rialto, Calif. After high school, he worked in construction before becoming a foreman on projects building low-power Christian television stations.

In March 2019, Mr. Henson was sentenced to 32 months in prison for driving under the influence and sent to San Quentin State Prison before being moved to the California Institution for Men. His family said he had previous arrests and was driving without a license when he was arrested.

Mr. Henson married Tracy Garmon in 2013. Along with his wife, he is survived by two children from a previous marriage and two adopted children.

Michael Bien, a lawyer whose firm has filed an emergency motion to decrease the population in California’s prisons, said that the institution did not provide personal protective equipment, such as masks, for inmates until April 30.

“A prison and a jail is much more like a nursing home or a cruise ship than it is like anything else,” Mr. Bien said. “It’s crowded, people are vulnerable and it’s very difficult to control the virus once it gets going inside.”

Jeffrey Callison, a spokesman for the state prisons, said he could not comment on specific cases but said the system had adopted measures to protect inmates, including limiting nonessential trips between jails, taking the temperature of people entering prisons, suspending visits, providing facial barriers and hand sanitizer for those inside and speeding up the release of 3,500 prisoners.

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