By Ned Meiners
MARIN, CA – Proceedings began here Monday morning in Marin County Superior Court against San Quentin State Prison and the California Department of Corrections (CDCR) for what one judge has called “the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history.”
More than 300 individuals have filed ‘habeas corpus’ petitions, alleging the prison violated 8th Amendment protections against “cruel and unusual punishment” when a transfer of inmates to the facility resulted in a massive COVID-19 outbreak.
According to Jennifer Huber, a partner at Keker, Van Nest & Peters LLP that represents the 300-plus petitioners, “This is an opportunity to raise awareness of the CDCR’s utter failure to enact policies and protocols that prioritize the health and safety of incarcerated people. This horrific outbreak and the resulting deaths were preventable.”
In May of 2020, CDCR decided to move 121 inmates from the California Institution for Men (CIM), in Chico, to San Quentin. At the time, CIM had the highest COVID-19 infection rate of any prison in California. Prior to the transfer, San Quentin did not have a single confirmed case.
In the ensuing weeks, approximately 75 percent of prisoners and staff were infected with the virus. Following the transfer, 2,614 people living and working at San Quentin tested positive for COVID-19 and 29 people died, making it one of the worst outbreaks in the country.
In a ruling on a previous habeas corpus petition related to the outbreak, In re Von Staich, California State Justice Anthony Kline declared, “By all accounts, the COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin has been the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history.”
In In re Von Staich, the court found that officials at San Quentin had not followed health expert’s advice to reduce the prison population by half. The prison was found liable for failing to take reasonable, known measures that could have prevented serious illness and death.
The state appealed the decision, and the case of Von Staich has been joined with hundreds of other similar petitions from inmates at San Quentin to be heard at an evidentiary hearing in Marin County court, where the prison resides.
Richard Braucher, staff attorney at the First District Appellate Project that represented Von Staich, and is now part of the legal team representing petitioners in the Marin County case, believes the hearings will shed some much-needed light on the events that took place at the prison.
“Now that this case is going to a hearing in Marin County Superior Court,” stated Braucher, “the public will learn firsthand that this was also a tragic, but entirely avoidable, human rights disaster—something Californians do not expect to see in civilized society.”
Proceedings began uneventfully on Monday, with an agreement from both sides to condense the amount of material they will be presenting. Because more than 300 petitions are joined together, the case is massive in size.
According to Christine O’Hanlon of the Marin County Public Defender’s Office, there are currently “over 5,000 exhibits” to be presented. However, if redundancies can be eliminated and certain factual elements agreed on before-hand, the scope can be reduced.
Marin County Superior Court Judge Gregory Howard, who will be hearing the testimony, agreed to resume the proceedings the next day. The hearings are expected to last for several weeks.
Attorneys representing the petitioners are confident there is sufficient evidence available to find prison officials and the CDCR responsible for the outbreak.
“The evidence will unfailingly show that the outbreak and the death, sickness, and human suffering it brought, was not at all accidental, but rather was the inevitable consequence of CDCR officials’ deliberate indifference to the lives and wellbeing of many hundreds of people at San Quentin, who, unable to protect themselves from the virus, were at the mercy of prison officials who failed to protect them,” said Braucher.
Ultimately, many of those advocating for the inmates believe this case is about more than the isolated actions of prison officials at San Quentin.
“We hope to hold the CDCR accountable for their actions,” said Huber, “and to highlight the need to reduce overcrowding in our prison system and ensure that incarcerated individuals are treated with the respect and dignity due to them as human beings.”
In a statement made Friday, Mano Raju, the Public Defender of San Francisco, says this incident illustrates the failings of our prison system.
According to Raju, “This case provides even more evidence of how harmful our system of mass incarceration is, exposing its fundamental failures and illuminating the dire need for decarceration.”
Ned Meiners is a Legal Studies student at City College San Francisco. Originally from Maine, he currently resides on Bernal Hill in San Francisco.
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