California Court Requires San Quentin to Reduce Population by Fifty Percent


By Julietta Bisharyan and Nick Gardner


Incarcerated Narratives

The COVID-19 pandemic has now claimed the lives of 28 incarcerated individuals and one guard. 55-year-old Ron Lee Joffrion survived the brutal past few months at San Quentin, and discussed his experiences in a testimonial written to San Quentin News.

Joffrion, a North Block resident who works in the prison’s mattress factory, described contracting the deadly virus following the CDCR’s decision to relocate 121 men from the California Institution for Men in early April.

He began to experience the symptoms of COVID-19, specifically a loss of taste and smell coupled with extreme headaches that prevented him from laying on his back. Within a matter of hours, his symptoms intensified to the point that he was nearly unable to breathe. Reluctantly, Joffrion decided to seek help from prison officials. 

Joffrion was then visited by a nurse, who recorded his temperature at 101 degrees. For the next five days, he battled increasingly severe symptoms quarantined in the Badger section, a part of the prison reserved for COVID-19 positive individuals.

However, Joffrion’s condition failed to improve, prompting his transportation to Seton Hospital in Daly City, where he was placed in an intensive care unit reserved for those from San Quentin. Throughout his time fighting off COVID-19, he was unable to notify his family that he was severely sick and near death. 

Joffrion spent the next 30 days on oxygen– drifting in and out of consciousness– before returning to San Quentin. Instead of returning to his cell in the North Block, Joffrion was moved to an improvised medical unit where he spent the next 18 days. Although he is no longer infected and has since returned to his original unit, he still experiences symptoms of COVID-19.  

Amongst these lingering symptoms are memory loss and shortness of breath. As of now, Joffrion is “weak and frail,” down 30 pounds and barely able to stand on his own. 

Joffrion realizes that he is not in the clear yet, as the virus continues to exist within the walls of San Quentin. However, he is glad to still be alive. Many of those at Seton Hospital did not come back.

CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes

As of Oct. 23, there are a total of 15,355 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 227 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 2% of the cases are active in custody while 3% have been released while active. Roughly 94% of confirmed cases have been resolved.

There have been 74 deaths within the CDCR facilities. 16 incarcerated persons are currently receiving medical care at outside health care facilities across the state.

On Oct. 20, CDCR reported that an incarcerated person from California Institution for Men (CIM) had died on Oct. 15 at an outside hospital from what appears to be complications related to COVID-19. This is the 24th incarcerated person from CIM to be identified as a COVID-related death.

On Oct. 22, CDCR reported three more deaths from California Health Care Facility (CHCF), Ironwood State Prison (ISP) and CIM. These individuals had died in late August and early September, but have now been determined by California Correctional Health Care Services to be caused from complications related to COVID-19. 

These are the first reported deaths at CHCF and ISP. CHCF currently has two incarcerated persons who are actively positive for COVID-19, while ISP has 13 active cases.

CDCR officials have withheld the individuals’ identities, citing medical privacy issues.

This week, Avenal State Prison (ASP) resolved 103 cases while only confirming three new cases. There are currently 11 active cases at ASP.

Folsom State Prison (FSP) has not recorded any new cases this week, appearing to recover from its recent major outbreak. FSP has nine active cases.

On Oct. 19, Deuel Vocational Institute (DVI) reported a new case of COVID-19, bringing their total up to one. Four days later, on Oct. 23, the number of confirmed cases went back to zero.

In the past two weeks, Valley State Prison (VSP) has tested the most, 83% of its population. Pelican Bay State Prison has tested the least, just 5% of its population.

There are currently 97,640 incarcerated persons in California’s prisons – a reduction of 24,769 since March 2020, when the prison outbreaks first began.

San Quentin

A recent appellate court ruling has ordered that San Quentin State Prison reduce its population by nearly half.

The First District Court of Appeals ruled on October 20 that the conditions within San Quentin constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment. 

64-year old petitioner Ivan Von Staich filed suit against the California prison after being placed in a cell “so small that you can touch the walls with your hands” with an individual who had tested positive. Due to his age and underlying respiratory problems, Von Staich is a highly at-risk individual. 

Although Von Staich contracted the virus and has since recovered, his lawsuit argues that it is “impossible” to effectively prevent the virus from infecting him again, and that “there is no opportunity to engage in social distancing” within the prison.

The ruling, which blasted the CDCR for its response to the coronavirus outbreak in California’s oldest prison, will call for the transfer of San Quentin inmates to other California prisons. In early April, this very practice initiated the devastating outbreak of COVID-19 in San Quentin that has claimed the lives of 28 incarcerated folks and one correctional officer.

As made clear by J. Anthony Kline, the court order does commute the sentence of Von Staich or any other individual. Rather, it recommends that Von Staich and others be released from San Quentin and placed in an environment that allows for physical distancing between incarcerated folks.

The target is for San Quentin to reduce its population to 1,775— nearly half of its current holding. The court ruling suggests that prison officials include new solutions for those over 60 to be released, in addition to the transfers. Incarcerated individuals over 60 have shown significantly lower recidivism rates compared to other age groups, even among those with violent convictions. 

The decision gives the CDCR control over which methods are used to decrease prison population. Recently, a spokesperson for the CDCR commented that the department is working to “determine the next steps,” which could include an appeal to the California Supreme Court. In an email to the Mercury News, CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas wrote that “we respectfully disagree with the court’s determination.”

Meanwhile, advocates for decarceration are hoping that two recent ballot initiatives, proposition 47 and 57, will be used to drastically reduce prison population. 

Jay Jordan, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, a crime prevention advocacy group, told the Mercury News: “I hope (CDCR) does take the long view and uses what’s on the books, like Prop. 57, to release these people,” Jordan said. “We don’t want to see them transferred. That’s why San Quentin became a petri dish.”

As of today, the fateful decision to transfer inmates from the California Institution for Men to San Quentin has resulted in over 2,200 cases and 29 deaths— a decision deemed by the court as “the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history.”

However, CDCR is standing by their controversial response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Spokeswoman Dana Simas wrote in an email that “[the] CDCR has taken extensive actions to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March, the department has released more than 22,000 persons, resulting in the lowest prison population in decades,” she said, later adding, “As of today, CDCR’s COVID-19 cases are the lowest they have been since May (477 cases reported today, and over 14,000 resolved), with San Quentin recording only one new case among the incarcerated population in nearly a month.”

Per an October 14 report from the CDCR, statewide prison population currently sits at around 8,000 above its design capacity.

The opinion of the court will be final in 15 days.

CDCR Staff

There have been at least 4,176 cases of COVID-19 reported among prison staff. 10 staff members have died while 3,540 have returned to work. 636 cases are still active.

CDCR Comparisons – California and the US

According to the Marshall Project, California prisons rank fourth in the country for the highest number of confirmed cases, following Texas, Florida and Federal prisons. California makes up 10.3% of total cases among incarcerated people and 5.6% of the total deaths in prison.

California also makes up 11.8% of total cases and 11.6% of total deaths among prison staff.

Division of Juvenile Justice

As of Oct. 23, there are no active cases of COVID-19 among youth at DJJ facilities. 70 cases have been resolved.


About The Author

The Covid In-Custody Project partners with the Davis Vanguard to report on the pandemic's impact on California's county jails and state prisons. See for more information.

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