CA Supreme Court Puts Order to Reduce San Quentin Population by 50 Percent on Hold

Davis Vanguard’s Weekly Highlights from CDCR’s COVID-19 Crisis

CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes

As of Jan. 29, there have been a total of 47,215 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 1,985 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 2,141 cases are active in custody while 677 have been released while active. Roughly 93 percent of confirmed cases have been resolved.

There have been 192 deaths within the CDCR facilities. 63 people are currently receiving medical care at outside healthcare facilities across the state.

In the past week, eight incarcerated persons have reportedly died from what appear to be complications of COVID-19 at CSP Los Angeles County, CA Men’s Colony, California Health Care Facility, Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, CA Medical Facility and Salinas Valley State Prison.

CDCR officials have withheld their identities, citing medical privacy issues. 

As of Jan. 27, 26,440 individuals have received first-round vaccines statewide. 22,234 are staff and 8,782 are patients.

To allow incarcerated individuals the opportunity to keep in touch with their families during the pandemic, CDCR has also implemented 30-minute video visits using Cisco Webex once a month for eligible persons.

In the past two weeks, CSP Solano has tested the most individuals, 71 percent of its population.

Kern Valley State Prison has tested the least, just 11 percent of its population.

There are currently 94,443 incarcerated persons in California’s prisons – a reduction of 27,966 since March 2020, when the prison outbreaks first began.

Effect on Public

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco has accused Gov. Newsom of using the pandemic as an excuse to close the state’s prisons and overcrowd county jails. He believes Newsom’s political opportunism and unnecessary pandemic measure are forcing him to release those who “are at a high risk of offending again.” 

He mentions in an online town hall meeting hosted by the Greater Coachella Valley Chamber of Commerce that, “We really are at that point –  where we’re releasing people we know should not be released, but we have no other choice.”

Aside from blaming Newsom, Bianco also blames his department’s release practices on CDCR. He explains, “We have to release people for property crimes because we just don’t have the space. We can’t release a state prison inmate. We can’t release someone that is wanted for a murder, or a serious crime against a person.” 

However, according to Bianco, many protocols have changed because of the pandemic. CDCR has been facing severe and persistent outbreaks in its institutions– over 47,000 have contracted COVID-19 and almost 200 have died. 

Bianco claims Newsom and CDCR have used the pandemic to their political advantage in order to release offenders and eventually shut down state prisons. However, even prior to the pandemic, Newsom’s administration was planning to decrease the state’s prison population over several budget cycles.

Newsom believes that with fewer incarcerated people, prisons can be closed and hundreds of millions of dollars could be saved from the $13 billion CDCR requires from California’s General Fund. Vicky Waters, CDCR’s Assistant Secretary of Communication confirms this along with the need to suspend intake from jails in order to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

Waters said CDCR facilities resumed inmate intakes from county jails on Jan. 11 in a limited capacity. CDCR has established criteria with health experts and the California State Sheriffs’ Association for transferring individuals. 

However, Bianco is not convinced. He holds the notion that Newsom is trying to close prisons which will force county jails to deal with persistent offenders. 

“I believe he used (COVID-19) as a political tool to take advantage of a bad situation… he let people go left and right… and he did it by saying he had to release them because of COVID.”

Bianco further claims that the thousands CDCR has released have burdened county jails because they are likely to reoffend and cycle back into the jails. Under a federal court order to alleviate crowding, Bianco says he has used his authority to release individuals twice as much in recent months than in the last four years. 

Notably, CDCR has released several people facing third-strike convictions. Back in October, the Sheriff’s Department released Ricardo Rivera Jr. who has four previous felony convictions. After being released, he failed to appear for his court hearing and was rearrested on Jan. 7 after being on the run for almost three months. 

The reason for Rivera’s release concerns Riverside County Superior Court Judge Burke Strunsky and other court officials. 

In addition, Bianco says that many are being released due to a lack of bed space. Those who should be in state prisons are taking up bed spaces in county jails. He says pandemic emergency orders have packed Riverside county’s five jails with about 1,000 individuals slated for state prison– nearly a third of the county’s 3,700 capacity. 

“We’re afraid that our legislators or the governor are going to somehow try and take advantage of [the pandemic] and say: the counties are dealing with them anyway we’re just going to leave them there and we’re not going to take them into the state prison system.”

With a substantial public outcry for police reform during a number of demonstrations in the Coachella Valley following the death of George Floyd, Riverside county did not garner enough support to review its own policies. Bianco told supervisors, “It’s not your job to tell me what to do.”

Bianco intends to create a Sheriff’s Advisory Council, but it has been postponed due to the pandemic. He said, “I wanted an in-person meeting where I can meet with all these people to make sure that their reasons for wanting to be on this board were legitimate. That they wanted to make a difference, that they wanted to help.” 

The Plata v. Newsom case continued last week with a two-hour conference to primarily discuss CDCR vaccine protocol and staff compliance measures, among other issues. Not on the agenda, however, was what UC Berkeley Law professor Hadar Aviram describes as the “basic problem”— the continuation of mass decarceration efforts to quell the spread of COVID-19 in California state prisons. 

CCHCS Receiver J. Clark Kelso updated the court on the status of the state’s vaccination program, which in some facilities has successfully inoculated 2300 incarcerated people. Moreover, refusal rates have remained low at around 8 to 10 percent as compared to past flu vaccination efforts. Kelso notified Judge Tigar that CCHCS will soon have documentation of those who have refused a vaccine. The next step in the CDCR/CCHCS’s strategy is to provide vaccines to those over the age of 65, who account for roughly 2,000 people excluding those who have already been infected. From there, the CDCR will shift attention to incarcerated individuals with a CDCR risk assessment score of 3 or over (7200 people)— a feat that Kelso believes could be executed in less than 7 days. After vulnerable populations have received the vaccine, the CDCR will attempt to inoculate the remaining 42,000 incarcerated folks who have not yet been infected with COVID-19. Despite an apparent nursing shortage, Kelso told Judge Tigar that this could be done in 4 weeks.

So far, 19,341 staff members have been vaccinated. At three skilled nursing facilities, 95% of staff members have received vaccinations and full immunization is expected within a few days. However, as an aggregate, the CDCR system refusal among staff members, the majority of which are custody staff and not healthcare professionals.

Judge Tigar then went on to discuss the “elephant in the room,” as Aviram describes it, being the CDCR’s hesitance to commit to mass release efforts. 

“I have sometimes become emotional when discussing this,” Judge Tigar said, referencing a previous hearing in which the names and photographs of deceased incarcerated individuals were displayed. He described “cajol[ing] and begg[ing] the governor to release significant numbers beyond the current numbers so we can avoid unnecessary sickness and death. So far these requests have, again, with all appreciation for the efforts that have been made, fallen on deaf ears. The consequence is now becoming more apparent. COVID has spread more easily than it had to, and we’ll never know for sure, but there is an unknown number of people who got sick and died who didn’t have to.”

“I take this case personally,” Judge Tigar exclaimed as he listed off some of the risks facing medically vulnerable incarcerated folks. “When the virus came, they were defenseless, and they died.”

Regardless, Judge Tigar made clear that the situation has not yet progressed to a point where he could invoke measures established under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which would allow him to release individuals granted that “deliberate indifference” was established. 

“If I could let people out I would do it today,” Tigar said, however, “my view of the law is that I’m not allowed to do that.” Whereas plaintiffs inevitably disagreed with Judge Tigar’s interpretation of the law, Tigar made it clear that PLRA action remains a possibility should deliberate indifference be determined in the future. In the meantime, Tigar has remained conflicted over the issue, describing it as a “source of incredible frustration.”

But as for immediate action, “we’re not there yet,” he concluded. 

San Quentin

The court order intended to reduce the incarcerated population at San Quentin by half has been put on hold.

On Dec. 23, the California Supreme Court chose to send the First Court of Appeals decision, also known as the Von Staich case, back to a lower court. This means that the October order to reduce the population by nearly 1,000 people is now being vacated until further notice.

In the decision, the appellate court justices concluded that CDCR’s handling of the outbreak of COVID-19 at San Quentin amounted to “deliberate indifference” and ordered the population to be reduced to no more than 1,775 people.

The California Supreme Court, however, found that the appellate panel made its findings based solely on written declarations and oral arguments, without hearing testimony from prison officials, incarcerated individuals or medical experts.

Prison officials have allegedly denied this deliberate indifference and appealed the Von Staich decision. 

“As the case now comes to this court, it appears that there are significant disputes about the efficacy of the measures officials have already taken to abate the risk of serious harm to petitioner and other prisoners, as well as the appropriate health and safety measures they should take in light of present conditions,” the California Supreme Court justices wrote. “For this reason, we return the case to the Court of Appeal with instructions to consider whether to order an evidentiary hearing to investigate these matters before judgment is pronounced.” 

According to Danica Rodarmel, the state policy director for the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, who has been one of several attorneys urging for the release of incarcerated people, the court’s decision also means that Marin County Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Howard is not moving forward with a separate habeas case to expedite the release of the 300 or so people she and others represent at San Quentin.

Before the state Supreme Court’s ruling, Howard had started granting individual habeas petitions for elderly and medically vulnerable people in San Quentin. Howard has now vacated those orders, however, putting them on hold for now.

“The decision is shocking, frustrating, and extremely disappointing,” Rodarmel said.

CDCR Staff

There have been at least 15,124 cases of COVID-19 reported among prison staff. 23 staff members have died while 13,852 have returned to work. 1,272 cases are still active.

On Jan. 21, one staff member at Correctional Training Facility died from COVID-19.

CDCR Comparisons – California and the US

According to the Marshall Project, California prisons rank second in the country for the highest number of confirmed cases. Federal prisons rank first while Texas ranks third. 

California makes up 12.7 percent of total cases among incarcerated people and 8 percent of the total deaths in prison.

California also makes up 15 percent of total cases and 13 percent of total deaths among prison staff.

Division of Juvenile Justice

As of Jan. 29, there are five active cases of COVID-19 among youth at the Division of Juvenile Justice facilities. 196 cases have been resolved since the first case was diagnosed in June.




By Julietta Bisharyan, Nick Gardner and Jaskiran Soomal 

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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