CA Corrections Purposely Ignored Health Warnings; Led to Largest COVID-19 Outbreak in U.S. at San Quentin

Special to The Vanguard

SAN FRANCISCO –  A more than 400-page pleading here charges today that the California Dept. Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) ignored the Marin County Health Official warnings about a COVID-19 public health disaster at San Quentin Prison, and that led to the largest virus outbreak in the U.S.

More than 2,000 people living and working at San Quentin (SQ) have now tested positive for COVID-19, and 26 have died. So far. The virus infection rates is 68.5 percent at SQ – California’s infection rate is just one percent.

In late May, the  CDCR transferred 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 before the transfer.

The recent Marin filing revealed that San Quentin ignored the advice of Marin County Public Health Officer Matthew Willis and that CDCR issued letters to local health officials claiming that state prisons are exempt from local health orders

Willis said the prisoners bussed to SQ had not been tested before being transferred to SQ and warned of a massive outbreak unless they were isolated.

Last week, in the case against SQ and CDCR, lawyers for 42 people incarcerated in San Quentin filed over 400 pages detailing failures by CDCR and SQ that have now led to 26 deaths at the prison and immeasurable suffering inside and out.

Marin County Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Howard, who is overseeing the case, issued an order on August 12 allowing a second consolidated case involving 115 more petitioners to move forward.

First District Court of Appeal is also considering a case by a man incarcerated at SQ, which was filed prior to the transfer and outbreak, but identified the prison’s unique vulnerabilities and correctly predicted what would occur if the virus made its way inside the prison.

Dr. Willis wrote to Judge Howard independently, emphasizing, “[T]he role of immunity— that is, protection for someone who has been infected from subsequent infection and illness— is still unknown. If immunity after infection is short-lived, or weak, another outbreak of this scale could reoccur. In that case all inmates, regardless of past infection, would be at risk if fundamental measures to prevent spread were not significantly improved.”

In response to calls to reduce the prison population by 50 percent,, incarcerated journalist, and Petitioner Juan Moreno Haines said, “Since I’ve had COVID-19, I’ve lived with 3 different people, unsure of whether or not that person had the virus or not. The problem that we have at San Quentin is that it’s overcrowded [and] it’s the perfect environment for the virus. It’s the perfect environment for people to die in. To solve this problem, I only suggest to follow the science.”

Danica Rodarmel, an attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office said it’s time for the CDCR to be “held accountable for the harm that they have caused – just like the 100,000+ people in its custody have been.”

She added, “It is unacceptable to allow the state to avoid responsibility for their actions, when they have led to more collective harm, human suffering and devastation than any single incarcerated person in the state of California has caused.”.

Hadar Aviram, Professor of Law at University of California Hastings College of the Law, along with 17 other prominent criminal justice and corrections scholars and the ACLU of Northern California have weighed in as “amici curiae” or “friends of the court.”

They argue that state and prison officials had ample warning a health crisis of this magnitude could occur at San Quentin, from decades of federal court criticism about the prison healthcare system generally and from specific warnings about COVID-19 from public health experts.

“In addition to the botched transfer from Chino to San Quentin, prison authorities failed to provide basic preventative measures, such as testing, protective equipment, and cohorting, even though they received not only advice, but offers of assistance,” the group said.

They urge the court to act, warning of a considerable possibility of a recurrence of the outbreak at San Quentin, as has already happened in other prisons.

In July, Judge Howard issued the first order in the now two consolidated cases of 157 petitioners, with more likely on the way. The court ordered the state to respond urgently to petitioners’ requests for immediate release from their incarceration at San Quentin State Prison, filed between June and August.

The cases were filed individually as “habeas corpus” petitions – an emergency motion asking the courts to determine whether a person’s incarceration is lawful. The petitions allege violation of the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” and 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 Charles Carbone, the Marin County Public Defender, the San Francisco Public Defender, and the Alameda County Public Defender.

Filings in the case are available at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Website, here:

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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