San Quentin Warden on Hot Seat Again Wednesday in COVID-19 Evidentiary Hearing

By Ned Meiners, Kelly Xiao Luo, Alexander Ramirez

MARIN, CA – Marin County Superior Court Wednesday heard the second day of testimony from San Quentin Warden Ron Broomfield, who described deteriorating conditions in the prison during a COVID-19 outbreak last summer, and confirmed he had not seen guidelines from UCSF doctors to improve quarantining in the facility.

San Quentin is currently being sued by over 300 petitioners who allege that the prison’s treatment of incarcerated people during a COVID-19 outbreak in the summer of 2020 amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of their constitutional rights.

Testimony began in Wednesday’s evidentiary hearing with cross-examination of Warden Broomfield by defense attorney Michael Lagrama.

Broomfield described the quarantine process, which occurred at San Quentin in three phases. Phase 1 is an active outbreak with three or more linked cases of COVID-19. Under this level of quarantine all inmates may not leave their unit, including being fed in their unit. San Quentin was under this status during the outbreak at the facility.

Phase 3 begins after 14 days with no additional cases. In this level of quarantine housing units use the dining hall, outdoor yard and any facilities separately. Access to rehabilitation, religious and education programs are restricted by unit. During this time visitation was restricted and only video visitation allowed.

Phase 3 begins after 30 days with no additional cases. At this point housing units may mix in the public areas and substance abuse counseling and other programs resume as long as they may respect social distancing guidelines. According to Broomfield, San Quentin is currently under Phase 3.

In Broomfield’s opinion, the prison took active steps to monitor and control the spread of the virus.

In the warden’s words, “Our health care partners over at CHCS [California Correctional Healthcare Services] were extremely diligent in monitoring the housing units and would put the housing units on cautionary quarantine…if there was any sign of flu-like symptoms.”

Broomfield explained a host of actions taken by the prison in an attempt to ensure safety, such as cancelled tours of the facility, limiting visitation, and suspended volunteer and rehabilitation programs.

He also described initiating cleaning schedules, verifying sufficient supplies of cleaning materials, mandating mask requirements, setting up posters to encourage sanitary hygiene, and self-feeding, the practice where food is brought to housing units rather than inmates meeting in a communal cafeteria.

While most inmates stayed put during quarantine at San Quentin, there remained a large number of inmate workers who remained active. Referred to as, “critical workers,” such as dining room staff or hospital maintenance workers, these were incarcerated individuals whose jobs were vital to keeping the facility running.

When asked if there was testing for these critical workers, Broomfield stated that they would be screened for COVID-19 in their housing unit prior to reporting to work. However, when questioned if workers from different units mixed with each other on the job during the COVID-19 outbreak in July, Broomfield was evasive.

“I don’t know if they were allowed to work together in July,” said the warden. Workers were divided by housing unit, and while they would never work at the same time and in the same location as critical workers from another unit, they did have to share facilities, such as the kitchen, which would be cleaned between shifts.

Critical workers would also conduct such tasks as delivering food to units under isolated quarantine, where they could potentially come into contact with infection.

The prison staff had made an effort to use what they called “COVID resolved” inmates, those who had had the virus and recovered, for much of this critical work. The theory amongst prison officials at the time was that those who had been infected with the virus would be immune.

While there was care taken to keep inmates from having contact with outside units, this was not the case for prison staff. Broomfield described “staff cohorts” as prison staff assigned to specific units who are only allowed to work in that unit.

When Lagrama asked if San Quentin tried to enforce a staff cohorting policy, Broomfield responded definitively, “We cannot enforce staff cohorting.”

The warden explained that this is because the prison staff signs up for overtime according to seniority and may work in any available shift in any area of the prison. He claimed this system is worked into the staff’s collective bargaining contract and he was helpless to do anything about it.

Finally, Lagrama questioned Broomfield about the transfer of 121 inmates from CIM on May 30, which was the initial cause of the outbreak.

Prior to the transfer it was believed the inmates would be housed in the Adjustment Center, a separate building with solid doors, where they could be quarantined.

According to Bloomfield solid doors, as opposed to bars through which the virus may travel, are necessary to maintain isolation. The Adjustment Center is the only unit at San Quentin, aside from the hospital, that meets this criteria.

However, the building proved to only hold 100 people safely and was too small to house the incoming population. At the last minute, officials at San Quentin decided to use the Adjustment Center to house inmates who were symptomatic, and hold the new inmates in their own units in the main facility.

The expectation was that the inmates would be quarantined in their units for 14 days and then released to the main prison population. This did not come to pass, said the warden.

On the day of the transfer, two inmates determined to be symptomatic by nursing staff were sent to isolation in the Adjustment Center, while the rest were ordered to units in the main facility.

On June 5, after being housed in the main facility for six days, inmates who had travelled with those carrying symptoms were ordered to the Adjustment Center as well by medical staff, he said.

This measure proved to be too late and COVID-19 was spreading among the prison population. Broomfield explained the number of inmates requiring isolation continued to grow, “By June 16, we had placed 90 inmates in the Adjustment Center.”

At that point the Adjustment Center, the only isolated space available in the prison, was full and so positive cases amongst the transfers remained in their units. Efforts were made to “activate” other spaces for isolated quarantine, such as the gym and the chapel, but the facility, the warn said, could not keep up with the growing cases.

“We were experiencing an outbreak with staff and inmates, so we were losing our staff rapidly. “We were sending inmates to outside hospitals,” Broomfield confessed.

On July 2, a unified command structure was established at San Quentin which brought in a host of groups including the California Department of Public Health and The California Office of Emergency Services to manage the prison. At that point, the crisis was so severe, prison officials could not address it alone, the warden said.

Services in the prison had essentially failed. “Our kitchen staff got sick, and we had insufficient staff to produce food,” explained Broomfield, adding, “We had initially fed the population through some pre-made meals that were unacceptable, so [unified command] initiated a food contract to bring in catered meals to the population.”

In spite of the events, Broomfield stated he felt an obligation to those under his watch. Lagrama’s final question to the warden was “As warden of San Quentin, do you feel a duty to keep inmates safe and healthy?” to which Broomfield replied, “Absolutely.”

After Lagrama finished questioning, Attorney for the petitioners, Khari Tillery, had an opportunity to examine the warden.

Tillery inquired as to whether Broomfield remembered a group of UCSF doctors who examined the prison facilities on June 13, 2020. Broomfield responded that he was aware of the visit, the purpose of which was, according to Tillery, “to evaluate San Quentin’s preparedness to address an outbreak.”

This tour was sponsored by Amend at UCSF, an advocacy group which focuses on public health and infectious diseases in prison populations. When asked if he had read the report from that visit, produced on June 15, Broomfield responded that he “did not recall viewing it.”

The report recommended a unified response team among various prison officials and health groups to address the conditions in the prison, but Broomfield could not say if this had prompted the creation of the Unified Command Team at San Quentin.

According to Broomfield he had not been involved in the decision making involved in establishing the team.

Tillery highlighted several other issues raised in Amend at UCSF’s document.

The report recommended a 50 percent reduction in the number of inmates at San Quentin. When asked if he was aware of this recommendation, Broomfield stated, “No, I don’t recall having any conversations to reduce the population 50 percent”

When asked if he considered this recommendation at all, Broomfield responded, simply, “No.”

Amend at UCSF had also advised San Quentin to improve testing at the facility and develop additional isolation and quarantine housing. Broomfield, stated he was unaware of either of these recommendations as well, although the prison had been working to address these issues.

Tillery asked for clarification when Broomfield first became aware of the report, to which the warden responded, “Yesterday, when it was published in court.”

Other than a recommendation to improve the ventilation at the facility, about which he had emailed prison staff, Broomfield admitted that he did not check for any other recommendations.

It was at this point that Tillery moved on to what San Quentin has been doing in response to the outbreak.

Tillery brought forward an exhibit of a tent of about 100 vacancies for people affected by the COVID-19, but Broomfield couldn’t tell from the photo if social distancing was possible under the tent.

Broomfield continued to talk about Phase 3 of the plan to recover, which included social distancing and masking during contact sports, but inmates are also able to exercise without masks.

When asked if there is any plan beyond Phase 3, Broomfield said no, and that this is going to be the “new normal” as he called it.

As for the staff of San Quentin, the vaccination rate was only 52 percent against the incarcerated population’s rate of 77 percent.

For reference, there are about 1,000 custody staff, 1,000 non custody staff, and 400 medical staff. Broomfield, however, said that he doesn’t have the authority to make vaccination a requirement.

There was also a mitigation and surge plan drafted that contemplated expanding housing for inmates who tested positive, said the warden.

There is an attention center that holds 102 people, two large chapels that can fit 64 socially distanced people each, a gym holding 108 people, two small chapels holding 10 people each, and 100 people under a large tent, and finally 200 more placings still possible. This is about 660 placings for 1400 positive cases, a point Tillery made.

When asked how he felt about 78 percent of the population of San Quentin being infected with COVID-19 and the 28 who died, Broomfield said his opinion was complex.

Broomfield continued by saying that the population was horribly impacted, but so were other neighboring communities and densely populated areas that are inherently more susceptible.

Tillery said that as the warden, people relied on him for safety when they can’t control where they sleep or what they eat. Tillery also questioned what Broomfield would’ve done differently. Broomfield said that he would’ve sought resources and housing faster, different from the original outbreak.

The next testimony brought into court was from epidemiology doctor Meghan Morris, who was questioned by attorney Nate Brown. Dr. Morris is versed in infectious disease epidemical work with a decorated history of education. She focuses on social epidemiology to see how epidemiology affects populations.

With regards to San Quentin, Dr. Morris reviewed the facility in science literature, the CDCR dashboard, weekly population reports, webinars and seminars, and a guided tour of San Quentin early October of 2020 and April of 2021.

Morris came to the conclusion that the facility’s congregate setting was inherently a risk that San Quentin failed to prepare for. The policies that weren’t put in place not only jeopardized the staff, but the incarcerated population as well. She said that the population in the facility must be reduced.

COVID diseases are caused by the SARS virus, Morris noted, and said asymptomatic transmission, or transmission from people not showing symptoms, can account for 30 percent of the cases. She added COVID primarily spreads through droplets and once these droplets become aerosolized or airborne, tight buildings or areas become contaminated.

Cases may also occur from contact with contaminated surfaces like phones. Incarcerated people are even more at risk due to the higher likelihood of underlying health conditions and the close setting of prisons, Morris maintained.

A list of recommendations was given by Morris, including reducing the population, distancing, quarantining, testing, and finally, vaccination, although vaccination was not part of this toolkit until recently.

All of this was understood by May 2020, not because of research on COVID, but instead because these recommendations are general practices for infectious disease response, she said. A cell buffer would also be welcomed.

It is important to clarify that these recommendations are on top of decreasing the prison population to at most 50 percent, she said..

Brown, the attorney talking to Dr. Morris, asked about her previous trips to San Quentin in October and April of 2020. Morris said that she visited housing areas, upper and lower yards, the hospital, and the food preparation area.

What she found was that the windows were unopenable, the facilities looked dirty, no handwashing stations easily accessible, and no distancing. The air was also stagnant and moist, probably from the lack of openable windows.

People were asking if she was there to help them and that they were afraid to die in prison, but in April, it was quiet. “People were just lying, hopeless,” she said.

During her October visit, some staff had surgical masks and others had masks around their chins. Meanwhile, she saw most inmates using cloth masks outside of their cells, but no mask inside of their cells.

It is unreasonable to expect someone to wear a mask for 24 hours a day, she said, and there are times like while showering or while eating that people can’t wear a mask.

As Morris mentioned previously, there were suggestions on how to tackle COVID made available based on previous outbreaks of influenza, yet the population for the San Quentin facility was still over 100 percent capacity.

All of this led to Morris’ opinion that even though they knew how to prevent the outbreak that occurred because of the CIM transfer, the San Quentin facility was insufficient in doing so and displayed a lack of value for the lives in the facility.

Brown would continue to talk to Morris before her cross examination by attorney John Walters, and although Walters expressed his concern for time in relation to his timeframe for the cross examination, the judge deemed that the court should continue for longer and Walters just split his cross examination with another day early next week.

Later, Morris was asked about good research for good data: “Garbage in, garbage out.” But Morris clarified that the science community doesn’t use the term, “garbage,” and all data can lead to some positive result in some way.

Ned Meiners is a Legal Studies student at City College San Francisco. Originally from Maine, he currently resides on Bernal Hill in San Francisco.

Hello, my name is Kelly and I am an upcoming senior transfer student from UC Davis. I am currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in the study of Sociology w/ Law Emphasis. My interests are mainly listening to podcasts on social issues, criminal justice, mythology etc. During my free time, I volunteer as a foster for our school’s vet program and I paint.

Alexander Ramirez is a third-year Political Science major at the University of California, Davis. He hopes to hone his writing skills in preparation for the inevitable time of graduation.

 


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