‘Too Little, Too Late’ Charges Lawyer After Judge Finally Rules CA Dept of Prisons, San Quentin Inflicted Cruel and Unusual Punishment on Incarcerated at San Quentin – Thousands Died or Infected with COVID-19

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By The Vanguard Staff

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – This week, Judge Geoffrey Howard of Marin County Superior Court ruled in favor of incarcerated who sued the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR) and San Quentin State Prison after COVID-19 took over San Quentin, infecting more than 2,600 people and killing at least 29 living and working around the prison.

“The scathing judicial indictment of CDCR’s actions last year is warranted and it is too little, too late,” said Danielle Harris, a Managing Attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender Office, representing the petitioners.

“This hideous example of systemic violence towards marginalized and oppressed people was wholly avoidable. If the Governor who presided over this deadly disaster still will not act to drastically reduce the prison population at antiquated places like San Quentin, the Legislature must urgently do so.”

The judge ruled that prison officials “acted with deliberate indifference and violated the constitutional rights of nearly 300 petitioners who filed writs of habeas corpus during a massive COVID-19 outbreak in the summer of 2020,” he gave them no relief.

The judge simply said this week the emergency was over, and thanks to high vaccination rates among the prison population.

But the judge strongly condemned San Quentin and the CDCR, noting it “historically does not safeguard inmates’ health and safety if left to its own devices.” And he cautioned that “the record raises serious questions about whether the Respondent has learned the right lessons from the 2020 COVID-19 debacle at San Quentin.”

The judge ruled “an overwhelming body of evidence showed that prison officials had violated the petitioners’ constitutional rights to live free from cruel and unusual punishment — including the transfer of untested people into San Quentin, the lack of screening and quarantine upon arrival, and the prison’s practice of keeping two people in cells too small for one person, even when one was symptomatic.”

The judge added that prison officials also “acted with deliberate indifference by ignoring their own protocols and the advice of the medical community which urged better safeguards and a reduction of the prison population to mitigate the health risks and the strain on local hospitals.”

Seventy-five percent of the prison population contracted COVID-19. Twenty-eight incarcerated people and one correctional officer died.

“Because [CDCR] did not reduce the population as recommended, it effectively consigned hundreds of [incarcerated persons] to unwarranted, unnecessary, solitary confinement. And not just for a day or two. Where [CDCR] had the ability to move [people] to other facilities or release them, the court can conceive of no argument to support forcing [them] to remain in a cell smaller than 50 square feet, with two bunks, and a cellmate, for virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for months on end. Doing so enhanced [their] exposure to COVID-19. For the duration it lasted, it also amounted to solitary confinement in violation of common standards of decency,” said the judge.

Full ruling at: SFPublicDefender.org/media.

A press statement by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office noted that in “the summer of 2020, hundreds of incarcerated people filed emergency petitions decrying inhumane conditions after a fateful decision by CDCR in May 2020 to transfer 121 people from California Institution for Men – then the state prison with the highest COVID-19 rate in California – to San Quentin.”

The PD said the transfer was made “without properly testing” those transferred first and “without properly quarantining them once at San Quentin. There were no COVID-19 cases at San Quentin before the transfer. As a result of the transfer – and because prison officials refused to heed the call of an independent team of doctors and epidemiologists to urgently reduce the incarcerated population” one of the worst outbreaks in the U.S. of COVID ensued.

The crisis led, said the public defenders, to months of lockdown where “people were confined to tiny cells around the clock and stoked extreme fear for those trapped inside and their families, said the Public Defender Office, noting that emergency habeas corpus petitions alleging unlawful incarceration under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” were filed.

More than 300 petitions were joined for the evidentiary hearing in Marin County Superior Court and the petitioners were represented by a coalition of public defenders, prisoner rights attorneys, and law firms.

Attorneys for petitioners include the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the Marin County Public Defender, Keker, Van Nest & Peters LLP, Law Offices of Charles Carbone, Law Office of Matthew A. Siroka, Sanger Swysen & Dunkle, SSL Law Firm LLP, and the First District Appellate Project.

An evidentiary hearing finally began in May 2021 where Petitioners’ attorneys spent weeks calling incarcerated witnesses and medical experts. All testified to the “horrific conditions inside the prison and the urgent pleas from the medical and public health community that went unanswered by prison officials,” said the PD.

“Prisoners subject to preventable death and disease are now being told ‘oops, sorry’ by the courts. Justice requires more — especially when this pandemic is not over,” said Charles Carbone, one of the lawyers representing the San Quentin petitioners.

“This opinion should be read and shared widely, because it contains the very important stories of the human beings who were trapped inside the prison as the virus ran rampant, and the horrors they experienced,” said attorney Tom McMahon, previously with the Marin County Public Defender. “Members of the public need to be aware of this tragedy, and asking why it is that CDCR’s morally outrageous, unconscionable and unconstitutional actions have no consequences.”

In a joint statement, J. Bradley O’Connell, Assistant Director, and L. Richard Braucher, Staff Attorney, of the First District Appellate Project, said:

“Judge Howard’s thorough ruling describes the many ways in which CDCR exhibited ‘deliberate indifference’ to the health and safety of the people in its care. CDCR ignored experts’ urgent recommendation for a 50% population reduction, though it had no informed basis for believing that its lesser measures would be sufficient. And as he pointedly stated, CDCR does not appear to have ‘learned the right lessons from the 2020 COVID-19 debacle at San Quentin.’ It ‘appears intent’ on pursuing the same strategy. We strongly urge the State of California to change course and to take the necessary actions to forestall another disaster, including substantial reduction of the population at this antiquated and highly dangerous prison.”

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