By Alex Ramirez and Sophia Barberini
MARIN, CA – Three witnesses testified Friday here in Marin County Superior Court in the hearing addressing the COVID-19 outbreak that killed 29 and infected hundreds of staff and inmates at San Quentin Prison. The hearing is the result of about 300 habeas corpus petitions.
Judge Geoffrey Howard heard concluding testimony from Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a professor at the USC Department of Medicine and a member of the CDC.
Attorney Michael Siroka spent most of his time inquiring about Dr. Klausner reportedly sharing his thoughts on the trial with a colleague. Dr. Klausner did admit discussing the case, mostly conceding that he was expressing his frustrations that he has not yet been paid by Siroka’s office.
Dr. Klausner was also questioned by Attorney Michael Lagrama on the immunity of inmates within the prison. Dr. Klausner, who defined “community immunity” as people who have either been vaccinated or had a prior infection, asserted that, in San Quentin, “overall immunity is about 90 percent,” though only 80% have been vaccinated.
At the conclusion of Dr. Klausner’s testimony, the court heard the remaining cross-examination of Mike Pederson, a member of the Healthcare Services Administration for San Quentin.
Conducting the cross-examination was Attorney Taylor Reeves, who inquired about OSHA citations and the COVID screening of staff members as they entered San Quentin.
In her cross, Attorney Reeves attempted to demonstrate the inefficacy of San Quentin COVID policy by highlighting the likelihood of staff coming into work even if they were having COVID-19 symptoms.
Pederson explained that if staff displayed symptoms of COVID-19, they were sent home. Further, he disclosed, staff that were sent home were paid for the day; however, they were not paid for the subsequent days that they were home with symptoms.
In her questioning, Reeves implied that this lack of pay would motivate staff to lie about their symptoms and return to work, perpetuating the spread of the virus.
Reeves also inquired about recent infections in the jail, revealing that there have not been any new inmate COVID cases in the past 14 days, but that there have been three new staff infections during that time period.
After Pederson’s testimony, Attorney Denise Yates called Rosalinda Rosalez, who works for the legal department of San Quentin, and was notified that she would be called as a witness on June 1.
On May 28, however, Rosalez tuned into the hearing to listen to the testimony of Sheets, who was testifying on San Quentin’s OSHA violations, as she was addressing them at work.
Because of this, counsel Siroka questioned Rosalez to determine her credibility as a witness. Rosalez asserted that she did not listen to the majority of Sheets’ testimony, tuning it out when she discovered it would be of no help to her.
Despite this, Siroka objected to Rosalez as a witness and Judge Howard decided to exclude her as a witness, noting that it was “not her fault,” but that it did damage her credibility.
Clearly thrown off by the exclusion of Rosalez, Yates called Rainbow Brockenborough, Regional Healthcare Executive for Region 1 for California Correctional Healthcare Services. She also served as one of three commanders on the Unified Command at San Quentin in July 2020.
According to Brockenborough, the purpose of the Unified Command was to bring together people that could “make decisions regarding the surge of COVID-19 specific to San Quentin.”
The Unified Command took the counsel of a Cal OSHA representative, Stan Henry, who was a “stakeholder that was there from the inception of the Unified Command and was part of operations in the command center.”
Henry, according to Brockenborough, worked closely with the Unified Command to limit any potential OSHA violations, touring San Quentin and making recommendations as to what actions the Unified Command should take.
Brockenborough asserted that San Quentin did carry out some of Henry’s recommendations, although he did not see any certain violations. Henry did highlight a potential violation with the prison’s Aerosol Transmissible Disease Plan (ATD), prompting San Quentin to begin training on a new plan.
The ATD violation, said counsel Yates, was part of the Cal OSHA citation the prison received. Brockenborough claimed this violation, in accompaniment with the others, was “surprising” because Henry, the OSHA representative, had told the Unified Command, in writing, that their actions during the COVID surge were acceptable.
Brockenborough also revealed the progress of vaccinations and social distancing in San Quentin, stating that, as of June 1, only 130 inmates have not been vaccinated, and of the 250 inmates that volunteered to move out of a “dorm” or open door setting to a closed door setting, approximately 26 inmates had done so.
Additionally, Brockenborough highlighted some of the preventative strategies San Quentin is engaging in in order to stop the spread, including isolation strategies, contact tracing, mask adherence, and social distancing.
Attorney Sarah Salomon then addressed the high turnover in the Healthcare CEO position at San Quentin, with Brockenborough acknowledging that there had been two Healthcare CEOs since the beginning of the pandemic.
Brockenborough was also asked about the loosening of mask restrictions that Nicole Avila previously testified to, admitting that she was unaware of any set policies about loosening mask restrictions, but acknowledging that inmates that are alone and socially distanced could remove their masks.
Additionally, Brockenborough agreed that decreasing the inmate population of San Quentin made it possible to improve social distancing, prompting Attorney Salomon to ask if Brockenborough was “aware of any plans to construct additional housing or solid door cells.”
Brockenborough stated that she was unaware of any plans to increase housing, causing concern in the eyes of Attorney Salomon who asked if there was anything to stop San Quentin from increasing to 100 percent capacity.
Brockenborough admitted that she “had no knowledge that that would be prevented.” Salomon pushed further, asking if the population could “increase to 130 percent of design capacity as it was at the beginning of the pandemic.”
Though she admitted that it was fair to say the population of San Quentin had increased between May and June, Brockenborough said that she could not comment on whether prison capacity would surpass 100 percent, arguing that it was “out of [her] scope.”
Attorney Salomon also briefly inquired about the specific OSHA citations, emphasizing that some of them were even labeled “willful” violations.
Attorney Salomon continued her cross-examination of Brockenborough regarding San Quentin’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak that occurred around June of last year.
Brockenborough explained that San Quentin had gone through with the set of recommendations that were included in a memo to the facility. There is also the possibility that the implementation of some of the new policies in San Quentin may have not come from this memo directly but from recommendations elsewhere, she said.
She cited one urgent recommendation that was implemented from the memo that included the creation of a COVID Outbreak Emergency Response Team which consisted of the Unified Command Center and smaller groups under that Command Center.
However, when it came to the urgent recommendation for San Quentin reduce its prison population to 50 percent, the facility instead looked into implementing alternative housing units to address overcrowding instead. Brockenborough confirmed that in July of last year, there were no plans from the San Quentin facility to reduce its prison population.
Salomon would move on to also confirm that Brockenborough was not aware of an order from the California Department of Public Health that staff would be cohorted. If staff were to be cohorted, it would violate the collective bargaining agreement currently in place, Salomon confirmed.
To Brockenborough’s knowledge, there has been no attempt to negotiate this part of the agreement, leading Salomon to question what would occur if another outbreak occurred. However, Brockenborough asserted that there are other ways of mitigating the effects of the outbreak.
Salomon then focused on Brockenborough’s opinion that Unified Command of San Quentin had successfully mitigated the long-term effects of the spread of COVID-19 in the facility, noting Brockenborough does not have a medical degree or degree in epidemiology, but a master’s in business.
By July of last year, there were already 1,381 positive COVID-19 cases in San Quentin and three dead from the virus.
While Brockenborough couldn’t verify the exact number of positive cases at that time, she agreed that she didn’t have any reason to doubt either of the numbers. By the fall of 2020, there were 2,241 positive cases of COVID-19 in San Quentin and 29 had died, to which Brockenborough was aware.
Because of lingering positive cases in the community and inmates at San Quentin still being COVID-19 naive, there is still the possibility or concern of another outbreak occurring in San Quentin.
It was this time that attorney Yates would clarify some of the things that were said in Brockenborough’s cross-examination.
In San Quentin, there were masking policies put in place for groups, people outside, and people within six feet of one another, Yates confirmed. Also, the capacity of one of the housing units in San Quentin was not decreased, but instead, the occupancy was decreased.
While Brockenborough couldn’t say the exact date it occurred, she said San Quentin has no positive cases and single-digit positive numbers for “quite some time.”
Attorney Salomon once again began her cross-examination of Brockenborough. Earlier, she testified that the number of positive cases in San Quentin decreased after the implementation of their new policies, yet Salomon pointed out that the number of cases between July 6 and July 13 had increased by about 400 cases.
Brockenborough responded by saying that she doesn’t have the exact date by which the number of cases started dropping, and there is data that numbers went down after implementing their new policies, but it is possible that it is not directly because of the implementation of the new policies.
Attorney Yates finished Brockenborough’s testimony by asking if the mitigation strategies put in place in San Quentin will help mitigate an outbreak as large as it was before, to which Brockenborough agreed.
This would be the end of the live witness testimony part of the San Quentin case. Respondents closed, and petitioners had no rebuttal.
The opening brief for this case is scheduled for July 7 with a reply on August 18. No dates were set for the final decision.
Sophia Barberini, from San Mateo, CA, is a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley. She is double majoring in Political Science and Legal Studies and hopes to pursue a career in law.
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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