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Judges deny emergency release of Calif. inmates amid COVID-19 crisis

The three-judge court said they do not have authority under a 2009 order limiting the state’s prison population levels

By Sam Stanton
The Sacramento Bee

LOS ANGELES — A federal court has rejected an emergency plea on procedural grounds to release thousands of California prison inmates to protect them from coronavirus, saying they do not have authority under a 2009 order limiting the state’s prison population levels.

The three-judge court, which held a hearing on the issue Thursday, issued an order late Saturday declaring that the current crisis does not fit under the original ruling.

“That order was never intended to prepare Defendants to confront this unprecedented pandemic,” the judges wrote. “Nor could it have, given that the entire world was unprepared for the onslaught of the COVID-19 virus,” the judges wrote.

But the judges gave lawyers a virtual pathway: Attorneys for the inmates could seek remedies through individual courts and two of the panel’s judges who oversee class-action suits over inmate care. That could pave the way for the panel to reconvene on the matter again in the future.

Michael Bien, one of the lead attorneys, said they would immediately seek relief to provide for greater physical distance inside the prisons and for greater mental health care for inmates.

“We are not stopping our efforts,” Bien said Sunday, adding that new motions would be filed with individual courts within days.

Inmate advocates have been insisting that the coronavirus crisis poses a dire threat to thousands of inmates inside the prisons who cannot get a 6-foot buffer from others and who already are sick or suffer from underlying conditions.

The state has opposed intervention from the courts, saying officials already are working to release parole 3,500 inmates who are within 60 days of their release date and move thousands of others into more suitable housing.

“No system in the country has gone as far as we have gone,” attorney Paul Mello argued Thursday, adding that there is no evidence before the court that the state is in violation of existing court mandates.

Instead, he said, the state is able to take action without court intervention to ensure inmates are housed safely.

“In real time with our experts and our infectious disease experts, we are trying to increase social distancing and we should be afforded the opportunity granted to us to attempt social distancing...,” he said. “We are able to activate other places for them.

“We can move people into gyms. We can move people into dorm rooms, we move people into vacant facilities. We should be afforded the opportunity to do those things with our experts and without intervention of this court.”

But attorneys for the inmates say a widespread outbreak of coronavirus inside the overcrowded prisons would be “catastrophic.”

“The real risk here is that COVID-19 will quickly run rampant in CDCR, causing many thousands of people to become critically ill, and those people will then require intensive, resource-consuming health care in community hospitals that already are on the verge of being overwhelmed,” they argued in a reply to the state’s planned steps. “Only by reducing the prison population to the point where effective preventative measures can actually be employed to slow transmission can this catastrophic outcome be mitigated.

The court – comprised of U.S. District Judges Kimberly J. Mueller in Sacramento and Jon Tigar in Oakland, and U.S. Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals – oversees an 11-year-old federal court mandate requiring California to keep its prison population below 137.5 percent of capacity to ensure constitutional levels of medical and mental health care for inmates.

“We take no satisfaction in turning away Plaintiffs’ motion without reaching the important question of whether Defendants have implemented constitutionally adequate measures to protect the inmates of California’s prisons from the serious threat posed by this unparalleled pandemic,” wrote two of the judges. “But we are bound by (federal law) to reach this conclusion.”

Mueller agreed ruling on legal grounds but said she thought the special panel may ultimately retain its power to order inmates released “in light of the unprecedented exigent circumstances.”

The decision comes as coronavirus cases inside the state’s 35 prisons continue to increase. As of Thursday afternoon, the state reported that eight inmates have tested positive, six of them in Lancaster at California State Prison, Los Angeles County, and one each at North Kern State Prison in Delano and at the California Institution for Men at Chino.

Another 33 staffers at 15 different prisons also have tested positive.

County jails statewide have already released thousands of inmates convicted of non-violent, non-serious crimes. Many releases involve inmates with less than 60 days to serve, and are designed to reduce crowded conditions inside jails in the event of an outbreak.

In Sacramento, where the Sheriff’s Office says no inmates have tested positive, more than 540 inmates have been released in recent days. Fresno County has released 207 inmates and Los Angeles has turned 1,700 loose with an eye toward releasing hundreds more.


©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)