Efforts to Release Incarcerated from San Quentin Move Forward in Marin County Superior Court

Mano Raju speaks at San Quentin in early July

Habeas petitions allege that California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation actions constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” as decisions led to an explosive and deadly Covid-19 outbreak at San Quentin

A COVID outbreak at San Quentin State Prison has led to calls from reformers and others for a massive reduction in the prison population. That release has been slow.

A Marin County Superior Court judge has ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to respond urgently to petitions requesting immediate release of 21 people at San Quentin State Prison. The petitions were filed by incarcerated people at San Quentin and attorneys representing people there over the past month.

The petitions come after a fateful decision by CDCR in late May to transfer 121 people from California Institution for Men (CIM) – then the state prison with the highest COVID-19 rate in California – to San Quentin. There were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at San Quentin prior to the transfer. As a result of the transfer, over 2,000 people living and working at San Quentin have tested positive for COVID-19 and 19 have died. The crisis has led to severe staffing shortages, near total and indefinite lockdown, and a state of extreme fear for those trapped inside and their families. Currently, the COVID-19 infection rate in San Quentin is 63% while California’s infection rate is 1%.

“Incarcerated people at San Quentin are scared to death,” said Marin County Public Defender Jose Varela. “Judge Howard has ordered CDCR to respond. And his seeking quick input from all parties reflects the important human rights issues at the heart of this litigation.”

The cases were filed individually as “habeas corpus” petitions – a legal recourse requesting a court to determine whether a person’s incarceration is lawful. The petitions allege a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” The petitions request immediate release to escape the deadly conditions caused by CDCR. The cases were subsequently joined together and will be heard by Superior Court Judge Howard. Attorneys for petitioners include attorney Charles Carbone, the Santa Clara County Alternate Defender, the Marin County Public Defender, the San Francisco Public Defender, and the Alameda County Public Defender.

Arielle Callin-Thomas, wife of petitioner Lawrence Thomas, stated, “My husband is currently housed in the gym at San Quentin State Prison and is fearful for his life and wellbeing. The inhumane treatment and lack of due diligence CDCR has shown during this global pandemic is incredibly heartbreaking to say the least.”

Health officials have consistently warned of the risk overcrowded prisons and jails pose to public health, as outbreaks in congregate living spaces threaten to overwhelm local hospitals. Public health professional and organizer Swati Rayasam said, “For those who are incarcerated, screening was never going to be enough. Incarcerated people are a vulnerable population and therefore more susceptible to COVID-19; additionally, incarcerated people also represent other vulnerable communities, such as low-income populations, people of color, people with disabilities, the elderly, and those with pre-existing medical conditions who are also more susceptible to COVID-19. It’s troubling to see CDCR’s apparent lack of consideration of cumulative risk to protect its highly vulnerable population from COVID, and its reliance on general recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control when the Bay Area is flush with public health professionals.”

After visiting the prison on June 13, Berkeley Public Health experts issued a letter urging officials to take several steps to protect the lives and wellbeing of those incarcerated at San Quentin, as well as prison staff; they recommended reducing the population by 50% via decarceration. After the transfer from CIM to SQ, the population count in mid-June was 3,547, today the population is 3,429, representing a 3% reduction – 16% of which is due to the 19 deaths. Meanwhile, CDCR continues to tout this as “the biggest reduction in prison population in recent history.” While the California Department of Corrections says it has identified approximately 8,000 currently incarcerated people for release statewide, advocates and public health experts say it is not nearly enough to forestall additional, avoidable deaths due to COVID-19, caused in part by the agency’s irresponsible decisions.

“If the state cannot take care of the people in its custody – at the very minimal level of ensuring they stay alive – then the courts must act” said Danielle Harris, Managing Attorney in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Integrity Unit. “Reducing the prison population is the only safe answer. CDCR has demonstrated its inability to come up with a sufficient plan, and transferring people from one unsafe lockup to another is demonstrably not the solution. We are grateful that the Marin court agrees the issue is an urgent one. Our community partners stand ready to support any released folks through reentry.”

“This case is about saving lives, but it’s also about protecting human dignity and wellbeing,” said Mano Raju, Public Defender of San Francisco. “Every incarcerated person is suffering under the current conditions of confinement, with no end in sight. They have no human contact with loved ones, and their mental health is suffering in addition to the threat to their physical health. The only solution is to dramatically reduce the prison population through releases.”

“People continue to die needlessly because the prison system is failing us,“ said Charles Carbone, Prisoner Rights Attorney in San Francisco. “The prison system’s failures are on full display now with deadly consequences for prisoners and those in the free community. Marin County Court is wise and responsible to tackle this urgently.”

Judge Howard’s expedited schedule for the case is promising because the process can ordinarily take a long time. It is also significant that he is considering an evidentiary hearing because it would enable petitioners to present evidence in a public and open courtroom (if only a virtual one) regarding the public health crisis in correctional facilities in general and CDCR’s mishandling of the situation at San Quentin, specifically.

“The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color because of systemic health and social inequities,” said Jessica Delgado, Deputy Public Defender at the Santa Clara County Alternate Public Defender, “but if you also consider long-standing racial disparities in arrests, prosecutorial charging, and court sentencing decisions – which have fueled the mass incarceration of people of color in California prisons – our failure to act decisively is nothing short of calamitous.”

“Systemic racism has caused our prisons to be overcrowded. And systemic racism has helped make Black and Brown people easy prey for COVID-19,” said Brendon Woods, who is the first Black Chief Public Defender in Alameda County and the only Black Chief Public Defender in California. “If the Governor will not act and CDCR will not act, we are forced to go to the courts to see if they will take action. We are exhausting every single avenue in an attempt to save lives.”

“The COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin Prison not only threatens the lives of the people who are incarcerated, but also those who live and work in the surrounding community,” said Jessica Jackson, Former Mayor of Mill Valley. “I commend the Marin County Superior Court for recognizing the urgency of this situation and calling on the CDCR to review the received petitions as soon as possible. A prison sentence should not be a death sentence.”

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