300 San Quentin Residents’ Lawsuit Against CDCR For Mishandling COVID-19 Underway

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By Julietta Bisharyan, Nick Gardner and Alexis Hogan

Davis Vanguard’s weekly highlights from CDCR’s COVID-19 crisis

CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes

As of May 22, there have been a total of 49,238 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 17 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 17 cases are active in custody while 608 have been released while active. 

A total of 48,389 confirmed cases have been resolved since the start of the pandemic and 224 individuals have died.

According to a report by inewsource, medical staff at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD) have been asking incarcerated individuals who decline COVID-19 testing to waive the prison of any liability for their illness or death.

On the waiver form, it mentions the risks of refusing tests and says the corrections department is “free of any responsibility” for any complications resulting from the virus.

Peter Chin-Hong, professor of medicine and infectious disease at UC San Francisco, says that the form raises ethical concerns since attempting to waive liability for declining a medical test would not be tolerated in private or community practice.

He also added that it may be difficult for incarcerated individuals to understand the implications of waiving testing because of the high rates of developmental disabilities and mental illness among the prison population.

RJD is currently facing legal action for its handling of the pandemic after sickening over 1,000 individuals, which lead to the deaths of 18 incarcerated people and one staff member. 

A spokesperson for the agency that oversees healthcare in California’s prisons said that the form was standard and used for any exam or treatment refusal, besides just COVID-19, but didn’t explain if other prisons are also using it.

One incarcerated person, interviewed by inewsource, said he regretted signing the form. 

“They just leave it for you to interpret,” he said.

One reason why incarcerated individuals might decline to get tested for COVID-19 is from fear that they will be forced into single cells if they test positive, which can feel similar to solitary confinement.

Penny Godbold, a San Francisco attorney who represents incarcerated people with disabilities, says they often have limited access to information beyond what the prison staff says and that there is often distrust between them and the staff.

“It’s possible they’re providing very good information, but there’s a real mistrust among incarcerated people toward anyone that works at the prison,” said Godbold.

In the past two weeks, North Kern State Prison has tested the most individuals, 51 percent of its population. Deuel Vocational Institution has tested the least, 48 percent of its population.

There are currently 96,793 incarcerated persons in California’s prisons – a reduction of 25,616 since March 2020, when the prison outbreaks first began.

Vaccinations

As of May 22, 2,577 patients have received their first round of vaccines statewide and 66,715 are fully vaccinated. 71 percent of the total prison population is either partially or fully vaccinated.

2,786 staff members have received their first round of vaccines statewide and 29,286 staff are fully vaccinated. 48 percent of the total staff population is either partially or fully vaccinated.

Currently, Correctional Training Facility has vaccinated the most incarcerated individuals, 87 percent of its population. Wasco State Prison has vaccinated the least, just 42 percent.

Centinela State Prison has tested the most staff members, 61 percent of its population. High Desert State Prison, on the other hand, has vaccinated the least of its staff population, only 22 percent.

San Quentin

Opening statements were heard last Thursday in a lawsuit claiming that San Quentin and CDCR officials exacerbated a coronavirus outbreak last May that has killed 29 individuals to date. 

The suit comprises 300 San Quentin litigants and will be led by petitioners Ian Michael Hall, Darius Sommons, Ivan Von Staich and Dontaye Harris. Representing the men is a team of public defenders from Marin County and San Francisco alongside a handful of private attorneys from the area. 

Last May, the fateful decision to transfer 121 individuals from the California Institution for Men to San Quentin triggered a wave of litigation against the CDCR. In October, a California Judge, ruling in favor of petitioner Ivan Von Staich, ordered that San Quentin reduce its population by nearly half while dubbing the transfer “the worst epidemiological disaster in state history.” 

The lawsuit is challenging the CDCR’s actions on the basis of the Eight Amendment’s protection against unlawful incarceration.

A February report by the Office of the Inspector General officially identified the transfer as the cause of San Quentin’s outbreak. To date, San Quentin has accumulated 2,241 cases of COVID-19—- over 2,200 of which were reported from the latter part of June through late August. 

This section references information from CBS SF Bay Area. For more, visit https://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2021/05/20/san-quentin-deadly-covid-19-outbreak-trial/ 

Effect on Public

Over 40 district attorneys across California have signed a petition challenging the changes adopted by the CDCR, that would allow 76,000 eligible incarcerated individuals to be released early. CDCR Press Secretary Dana Simas said the CDCR is currently reviewing the district attorney’s petition.

These changes that were announced on April 30 2021 and took effect on May 1, increase the amount of good conduct credits that can be awarded to the eligible incarcerated people.

Sutter County District Attorney Amanda Hopper noted her opposition to the new changes in an email, “The CDCR’s proposed action would substantially increase the criminality in Sutter County. It is a ridiculous miscarriage of justice.”

The good conduct credits are awarded to the incarcerated individuals in addition to their credits earned by participating in educational programs, counseling, career training, and other rehabilitation programs.

Yuba County District Attorney Clint Curry explained that these changes mean that incarcerated individuals who are convicted of a violent offense will have to serve 66 percent rather than 85 percent of their sentence.

Curry said in an email, “The term ‘good conduct credits’ is deceptive; the inmates get these credits automatically. If the inmate misbehaves in prison, a small portion of their ‘good conduct credits’ can be taken away only if they are found after an administrative hearing to have committed a ‘serious rules violation.’”

“This undermines most of the goals of sentencing, including protecting society, punishing the doer of criminal acts, and preventing criminals from victimizing others by keeping them locked up and off the streets. Some people who commit crime can and should be rehabilitated, but many are not ready to change their ways. The only way to protect society from these individuals is to keep them off the streets by incarcerating them,” Curry said.

Curry mentioned how these changes were adopted by CDCR as an emergency, rather than going through the traditional rule-making process which allows for public scrutiny. “The governor is lowering punishments for crime by essentially saying the criminals don’t have to serve the time. Early release of our most dangerous criminals further erodes accountability for crime, mocks crime victims, and ultimately puts our communities at risk to further criminality,” Curry said.

Curry explained that by filing the petition, the district attorneys are asking the CDCR to redo the rulemaking process to include input from the public. However, if the CDCR refuses this petition, a lawsuit against CDCR would be the next step. “Our hope is that CDCR will abandon this misguided effort once the public has an opportunity to weigh in on the new regulations,” Curry stated.

CDCR Staff

There have been at least 16,537 cases of COVID-19 reported among prison staff. 16,403 have returned to work while 134 cases are still active––a decrease of 20 from last week.

28 staff members have died.

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, following Federal prisons closely behind. Texas ranks third. 

2 in 5 incarcerated individuals have tested positive –– 4.4 times the rate in California overall. 1 in 530 patients has died from COVID-19. 3 in 4 incarcerated individuals have been fully or partially vaccinated.

California makes up 12.3 percent of total cases among incarcerated people and 8.2 percent of the total deaths in prison.

California also makes up 14.6 percent of total cases and 13.6 percent of total deaths among prison staff.

Division of Juvenile Justice

As of May 22, there is one active case of COVID-19 among youth at the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) facilities. 204 cases have been resolved since the first case was diagnosed in June.

A Year Ago Today

A year ago today, there was a total of 1,221 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across CDCR.

At that time, California had 91,239 cases within the state. As of today, California has had a total of 3.66 million cases.

A year ago this week, incarcerated individuals from Golden State Modified Community Correctional Facility, reception centers and restricted housing units continued to be transferred to other institutions, with the exception of California Institution for Men. 

During that time, the sixth and seventh incarcerated person from California Institution for Men passed away at outside hospital from complications related to COVID-19.

Back on May, 20, 2020, CDCR announced it will resume intake from county jails in a very limited, controlled manner from four counties only to the Reception Centers at North Kern State Prison and Wasco State Prison only.

References 

https://news.yahoo.com/das-statewide-challenge-cdcr-131700500.html

https://inewsource.org/2021/05/18/covid-19-testing-waiver-at-donovan-prison-called-deceptive-inappropriate/

https://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2021/05/20/san-quentin-deadly-covid-19-outbreak-trial/

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About The Author

Aparna Komarla leads the Covid In-Custody project, which partners with the Davis Vanguard to bring reporting on the pandemic's impact on county jails and CDCR to the public eye. See www.covidincustody.org for more information.

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