SAN QUENTIN COVID HEARING: Despite Covid-19 Protocols, Issues with San Quentin Covid-19 Management Emerge

By Michael Wheeler and Christopher Datu

MARIN, CA – The evidentiary hearing over responsibility for a massive outbreak of Covid-19 in San Quentin State Prison reconvened Monday, as lawyers attempted to determine the medical policies of staff at the prison, hearing testimony from multiple high-ranking medical administrators within San Quentin and the state prison system, as well as from a San Quentin prisoner.

The first witness to be called to appear was Dr. Joseph Bick, the head of medical services for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Continuing his testimony from Friday, Bick said there had been no published guidelines from the federal Center for Disease Control or from the California Department of Public Health, and that Covid-19 had presented a large challenge to effectively providing medical care to inmates.

Krista Pollard, representing the Office of the California Attorney General, then led Bick through Exhibit 1043, the Covid-19 surge and mitigation plan developed by CDCR and dated to August 2020.

Bick testified that each California state prison had been required to create a pandemic management plan and implement modified movement plans, with guidance policies created “significantly before August, I believe in the spring of 2020, and continu[ing] to evolve to this day.”

In addition to these policies, each prison has implemented a plan for aerosol transmissible diseases, he said.

The pandemic has greatly affected how California state prisons operate, and Bick detailed how each prison required inmates and staff to use PPE, guidelines which were consistent “to an extent… with recommendations from the centers of disease control.”

The federal guidelines, however, were “not specific enough for our physical plant,” so an adapted set of guidelines were implemented, he explained, adding that in addition to use of PPE, the “expectation was that staff and incarcerated people would maintain a distance between themselves of six feet at all times, to the extent that that was achievable.”

Distancing requirements impacted the typical provision of medical treatment, Bick stated, and alternative health housing sites such as gymnasiums, chapels, and large tents on the prison site were utilized to accommodate the at-times large numbers of incarcerated Covid-19 patients.

Bick also discussed Exhibit 1050, a resolved cases FAQ handout which was “developed initially to address concerns raised by incarcerated people.”

The handout was an “attempt to ensure that our incarcerated population were assured that when people were being returned to the population they were no longer contagious.”

Furthermore, Bick told the court that he believed that the vaccine rollout within the prisons had been effective.

Nurse Guy Vandenberg, currently a nurse at UC San Francisco who treated patients at San Quentin beginning July 14, 2020, took the stand next under questioning from Christine O’Hanlon, a Marin County public defender representing the plaintiffs.

Vandenberg described a variety of practices used for treating Covid-19 positive inmates. Some were treated in the doorway of their cell, while others would be completely out of the cell for a period of time.

In particular, he testified to the difficulty that he had had attempting to deal with a patient who had developed new symptoms for Covid-19 and who expressed concern for his cellmate.

After notifying his superiors, he telephoned the doctor on call for guidance as to moving the patient.

Instead, she asked him what the next steps would be, steps which he did not know and had expected to find out from the doctor. The doctor informed him that she had not been to San Quentin and did not know where the patient would be housed.

The senior nurse on duty also did not know what to do with the patient, telling Vandenberg, “The physicians who worked during the day usually took care of those things.”

Vandenberg also witnessed the erection of a large tent on the site of San Quentin, but although its intent had been to house sick inmates, he testified that he had never seen an inmate inside of it.

Straddling the court’s lunch break, the petitioners next called Dr. Alison Pachynski, the Chief Medical Executive for San Quentin State Prison, to the stand.

She informed the court that she had been aware since the previous October that ventilation could be crucial for the spread of Covid-19. In addition, she stated that based on her observations, the ventilation in H Unit looked different from that in the cell block.

In order to combat Covid-19 and diminish inmate population density, she reported that the dorm-style housing in H Unit had been drastically reduced, with three of the dorms operating at 50 percent of capacity.

Pachynski also testified that the time between an inmate being tested for Covid-19 and receiving their test result could be shockingly long. Due to widespread limited testing capacity during the summer, results could take five to six days to be received by one of the San Quentin’s physicians.

At that point, the inmate would receive a letter via the prison mail service, adding another few days, and possibly up to a week, to the response time from the test.

The prison was also offered rapid testing for Covid-19 by Fyodor Urnov, a researcher at UC Berkeley, in April 2020. Despite the need for testing within the prison population, administrators declined the offer, which would have allowed them to receive results within 36 hours.

Lawyers reopened the examination after lunch by asking Pachynski to recall “In mid-June of 2020 you toured a group from UC Berkeley and UCSF through San Quentin?” to which Pachynski affirmed “Yes,” and the group’s main purpose was “to help look at the COVID outbreak at San Quentin.”

Pachynski responded with, “I knew that my job was to take them around and show them the institution and talk about where things were at and they would, with their expertise, come up with their recommendations.”

A memorandum consisting of the recommendations had been compiled by the group and was displayed as the petitioners called for Exhibit 35A. When asked to recall the specific recommendations outlined in the memo, Pachynski claimed “there was a lot outside of my purview so I don’t know.”

Attorney Hucek began referencing Pachynski’s deposition in an effort to help her identify specific recommendations for the court, but was met with a sustained objection that the deposition could not be used or cited as evidence.

Hucek redirected her line of questioning, asking “Having walked through the housing units with these professionals from Berkeley and UCSF, you would agree that prisoners are housed in extremely close living quarters?”

Pachynski agreed, and identified North Block, West Block, South Block, and East Block were most concerning units for COVID, given the five tiered structure housing cells covered only by open bars and grills at the front.

Hucek ended her examination there and the cross-examination was handed to Denise Yates.

Yates began by asking about the preparation leading up to the transfer in question. Pachynski made it clear that San Quentin began preparations in late February of 2020 with the chief physician reaching out to Marin County Public Health department while she reached out to the internal Custody Department for education on housing procedures.

As the severity of COVID became more clear and information began circulating, Pachynski claimed they “got their hands on anything they could” from scholarly papers to weekly conference calls with county jails.

When asked who else was included in the educational efforts, the Inmate Advisory Counsel, Custody Department, Nursing Department, mental health groups, and the individual housing units themselves were noted.

Hucek received another opportunity to question Pachynski and asked, “Despite all the preparation you testified to, you were not involved at all in the court ordered transfers?” Pachynski stated she was not.

Hucek followed up, asking, “In fact no one on San Quentin’s medical staff was consulted?” Pachynski responded “We were not consulted as to whether or not the transfers should happen.”

Pachynski was then dismissed and the petitioners called Dr. David Sears to the stand as one of the professionals in the group that toured San Quentin and provided recommendations.

Sarah Salomon kicked off the petitioner’s line of questioning by developing Sears as an infectious diseases expert in the UCSF group Amend, aimed at reforming corrections culture to reduce debilitating health effects.

When asked how the group became authorized to tour San Quentin, Sears recalled the “worry of a large outbreak” in the wake of a small cluster of 19 cases suddenly appearing. The group went on a consult request by Clark Kelso, the court-ordered receiver for California’s penal institutions.

The tour group was shown a number of housing units according to Sears who described the cells’ dimensions as “eight by 10 at most”, stating social distancing was impracticable and “could not be followed for any sustained period of time.”

When asked if he observed any ventilation, Sears stated “The windows across from the cells, all of them or nearly all of them, were shut.”

Salomon then turned to the general atmosphere of the housing unit Sears observed, asking “Can you describe the behaviors you observed?”

The inmates were characterized by Sears as “upset” and “agitated,” with some “shouting for help” while others were “more subdued” sitting on beds or pacing. Sears described the overall emotional state as one of “fear and anger.”

During the tour, Sears also witnessed disarray amongst staff attitudes towards COVID safety precautions.

The tour group was “as a whole, dismayed we didn’t see higher compliance with mask use” according to Sears, as they noticed some staff with their masks on their chin or lacking one altogether.

Sears further noted some custody work-stations had “people in close proximity to other people. That was of primary concern.”

The group memo that followed Sears’ tour contained Amend’s recommendations upon seeing the state of the San Quentin facilities.

Salomon referenced the recommendation on prison population specifically, asking Sears “Did the Amend team deliver a recommendation to Mr. Kelso regarding how many prisoners were housed at San Quentin?” Sears reported that the group’s recommendation advised the prison population “be reduced by 50 percent.”

According to Sears, the four most critical aspects of the recommendation were “the first four at the top of the memo” outlining the need for an outbreak response team, depopulation, efficient testing, and additional housing and isolation units.

Sears’ testimony ended without cross-examination and Kevin Sample, a current San Quentin inmate, was called to testify.

Matthew Siroka took over for the petitioners and began questioning Sample about his history at San Quentin, outlining that he was housed in the West Block unit during the initial COVID outbreak.

Cleanliness in San Quentin was lacking for Sample as he was asked to characterize how sanitary the West Block facilities are currently. He claimed it was “Not clean at all, there are pigeons flying around, there is fecal matter from pigeons and urine, piles and piles of dust. It is extremely dusty and extremely filthy.”

Sample also attacked staff safety measures as Siroka asked about the mask compliance in July 2020. Staff were “more noncompliant than compliant, it was really disregarded initially.”

There was an “ebb and flow” for mask safety according to Sample, who remembered “they gave us cloth masks at first, then they started giving us N-95’s and everyone started wearing their masks more than they were at first.”

Sample tested positive for COVID on June 25 and received the results June 29.

Siroka asked about the conditions following Sample positive test, whether or not he was ever isolated or his cellmate removed. Sample reported “I was never moved.” His cellmate tested negative around the same time and was not removed either.

The whole situation “compromised me mentally” as Sample recalled being in mental health groups for the past 13 years.

Familiar with mental health struggles, Sample worked as mental health facilitator and got the opportunity to listen to many other inmates’ mental health experiences.

He reported a common theme of “severely elevated levels of anxiety, grief, serious levels of depression, fear, and anger.” Siroka asked about any increases in hostility, to which Sample said “Absolutely, if there were two fights a year, since the pandemic there were 20.”

When asked about how the outbreak affected his trust for CDCR officials, Sample quickly stated “I don’t have any trust for the officials here, regardless of their efforts to try to help us,” adding that “the court gave them a remedy and they rejected it.”

The testimonies ended with Sample as Judge Howard remarked how “we barely got through our witness list today, but I guess that’s what tomorrow’s for” Further evidence and witness testimonies are scheduled for 9 a.m. in the Marin County Superior Court.

Join the Vanguard in a Webinar on the San Quentin hearings on June 4 at noon.  To register – hit this link.

Michael Wheeler is a junior at UC Davis, where he studies History and Economics. He is from Walnut Creek, California.

Christopher Datu is a 4th year Political Science major at UC Davis. He is originally from Corona, California.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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