By Yuanqi Ivy Zhou
SAN FRANCISCO – A U.S. Northern District judge formally announced a case management conference to discuss the rapid spread of COVID-19 in California state prisons, severely impacting elderly and medically vulnerable incarcerated people in state prisons.
Judge Jon S. Tigar addressed the gravity of the case by writing, “Defendants: failure to act will cause an inevitable and unnecessary loss of life.”
In recent months, according to state surveys, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted California’s state prisons, and as of July 3, there are a total of 5,335 confirmed inmate cases and 25 inmate deaths, 949 reported staff member infections and two deaths, and 2,444 currently active cases.
COVID-19 is known to have affected every one of California’s 35 adult prison facilities, and experts say that the virus is still developing in California state prisons, presenting a particularly serious harm to the elderly and medically vulnerable population.
On July 2, the court held a case management conference on Marciano Plato v. Gavin Newsom to address the need to “release a significant number of elderly or otherwise medically vulnerable inmates to avoid the unnecessary spread of, and deaths from, COVID-19 among inmates and staff alike.”
The plaintiff claims that the release of these inmates can result in more cells and beds for inmate quarantine and isolation, ensure adequate care of inmates by medical staff, and prevent threats toward surrounding communities.
The court also presented a specific concern for facilities and their respective inmates with particularly high risks of severe disease and death, such as Vacaville’s California Medical Facility (“CMF”) and its residents. Though there has only been one positive inmate test, the plaintiff claims that “multiple deaths are a certainty” in the case that “staff are unable to control the spread of COVID-19 at CMF.”
District Judge Tigar said he wants to talk about the court’s next steps including a three-judge court to consider prisoners’ release, the appropriateness of entering a prison release order, and any predicate steps to the order. The matter of disease spread prevention will also be discussed.
The case also brings into question the defendants’ indifference about Eighth Amendment concerns. In the past, the court decided that the defendants’ actions are not constitutionally deficient for now, but agreed that “the risks of COVID-19 are substantial” and that the “Defendants have the ability to take additional steps to decrease the risk of spreading the disease.”
Though the court acknowledges that state prisons have taken the extra effort to sanitize physical spaces, promote physical distancing, and release a certain number of inmates, the plaintiffs argue that these actions are not enough with the disease spreading out control at several institutions—which presents a clear danger to the elderly and medically vulnerable.
The plaintiff uses the San Quentin outbreak as a single example of an outbreak overwhelming an institution. In this case, “over 1,500 San Quentin inmates, and over 150 staff members, have now tested positive for Covid-19” with three confirmed deaths and many transfers to outside hospitals and intensive care units. The problem was insufficient facilities for quarantine and isolation, and inadequate staff response.
The court asked the defendants to ultimately discuss “what they believe is required to protect California’s prisons, their staff and inmates, and their surrounding communities during this pandemic” at the case management conference and in future discussions.
Judge Tigar charged, “Defendants’ failure to act will cause an inevitable and unnecessary loss of life – not just in California’s incarcerated population, but also among CDCR staff and those beyond institutional walls who interact with staff or their household on a daily basis.”
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