Court: San Quentin must release or transfer inmates due to lack of COVID care
A state appeals court took the unprecedented step of ordering at least half of the prison's 2,900 inmates transferred or released
By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN QUENTIN, Calif. — Finding that state officials have acted with "deliberate indifference" to the health of prisoners at San Quentin — where 75% of them have tested positive for the coronavirus and 28 have died — a state appeals court took the unprecedented step Tuesday of ordering at least half of the prison's 2,900 inmates transferred or released.
The failure to take proper safety measures at the 148-year-old prison is "morally indefensible and constitutionally untenable," said the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco. The court said San Quentin inmates, many of them elderly or medically vulnerable, could be relocated to other prisons or correctional facilities with safer conditions or granted early parole.
The court had signaled its intention to order large-scale releases at a hearing in August, when the justices criticized prison officials for their response to a COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin caused by the botched transfer of inmates from the California Institution for Men in Chino. But Tuesday's ruling was the most dramatic and far-reaching judicial response to date, in California and perhaps nationwide, to officials' handling of the pandemic behind bars.
The court "took a stand for these people who simply could not protect themselves," said attorney L. Richard Braucher of the First District Appellate Project, who argued the case on behalf of a 64-year-old San Quentin inmate who tested positive for the coronavirus in July but remained in a small cell with a 65-year-old inmate, also diagnosed with the virus.
If the ruling survives an appeal to the state Supreme Court, Braucher said, it could easily be applied to other state prisons with high rates of infection, like the prison in Chino ( San Bernardino County), where more than half the 2,200 inmates have tested positive and 24 have died.
"I think we may have saved some lives," said Hadar Aviram, a law professor at UC Hastings in San Francisco who filed arguments supporting the inmates.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which manages California's 35 prisons, said it disagreed with the ruling.
"CDCR has taken extensive actions to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic," said spokeswoman Dana Simas. Out of about 14,500 coronavirus cases diagnosed among inmates statewide, she said, only 496 are active cases, the lowest total since May.
The department argued in court papers that it had taken reasonable safety measures, halting transfers of inmates from county jails to state prisons and releasing thousands of prisoners one year early. California's prison population has dropped by about 21,000 since February, to 94,000, and San Quentin's population is down by more than 1,100, or 25%.
But the court said San Quentin has refused to release some of the most vulnerable inmates -- those who are serving terms of up to life in prison and have already spent decades behind bars. Studies show they are less likely than others to commit new crimes while on parole, the court said.
It is also a prison with "exceedingly poor ventilation, extraordinarily close living quarters and inadequate sanitation," where inmates are housed together in barred cells with little protection from the airborne virus, Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline said in the 3-0 ruling.
San Quentin was COVID-free until late May, when officials transferred 121 inmates there from the California Institution for Men, site of the prison system's largest outbreak at that time, four weeks after many of them had been tested. After the transfer, San Quentin officials disregarded advice from Marin County's top health official to prevent any contact between the new arrivals and those already at the prison.
Among those who soon tested positive was Ivan Von Staich, the plaintiff in Tuesday's case. Convicted of murder in Southern California in 1983 and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, he was housed with another COVID-positive inmate in a 5-by-9-foot cell until the court ordered him moved to a quarantine single cell in August.
A state parole board panel found him suitable for release last week, but he remains in prison during further review by the full parole board, and perhaps by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who can veto parole decisions.
In a filing with the court, Von Staich's lawyers said staff at the prison "try to talk inmates with COVID-19 symptoms out of medical treatment," and tell them "they have to 'kick it' on their own."
Federal judges have criticized San Quentin's response to the outbreak but stopped short of ordering inmate releases. The San Francisco public defender's office is seeking release of about 300 San Quentin inmates, based on individual evidence that they pose no risks, and is scheduled to present its case Monday to a judge in Marin County, said Danica Rodarmel, the office's policy director.
Kline said the appeals court would let San Quentin officials decide which inmates to transfer or release, as long as the total was at least half the prison population. "With lives at stake, it is vital to proceed with all possible speed," he said.
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