San Quentin is on the verge of a monumental change after a state appellate court ordered the prison to slice its incarcerated population by 50% to cut back the coronavirus outbreak within the institution, according to multiple news agencies and the court order.
Ivan Von Staich, a San Quentin prisoner, filed a court petition claiming that San Quentin acted with deliberate indifference to prisoners’ health and safety by not being adequately prepared to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, which experts had predicted and informed prison officials was imminent.
The First District Court of Appeal agreed and ordered the immediate reduction of the prison population by transfer or release of half of its approximately 3,000 prisoner population.
“I am very grateful that the court agreed that San Quentin is overpopulated, and that they are finally going to do something about it,” said Antoine Watie, a prisoner in San Quentin’s West Block facility. “To put it another way, they’re finally realizing that prisoners’ lives matter too.”
As of Dec. 1, The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has not reported how many prisoners will be released or transferred. Some civil rights organizations, judges and even some prosecutors, have opined that the release of tens of thousands of prisoners could in fact halt the spread of coronavirus in correctional institutions, the New York Times reported.
The Von Staich petition highlighted San Quentin’s cramped environment, unsanitary conditions and the prison’s inability to protect guards, prisoners and staff from the coronavirus.
“At present, San Quentin remains unsafe for inmates, staff and others coming into the facility,” said Dr. Chris Beyrer, professor of epidemiology, international health, and medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, according to the court documents.
“Releasing as many prisoners as possible (50% or more) from San Quentin was, and remains, important to protect the health of prisoners, the health of correctional facility staff, the health of the healthcare staff, and the community as a whole,” Beyrer added
Some analysts believe that California Gov. Gavin Newsom and other state political leaders would be in opposition to a large-scale transfer or release of people convicted of violent crimes, the Times reported.
Most prison advocates are against using transfers to other prisons as a solution. The advocates cite the transfers of the 121 men to San Quentin from the California Institute for Men (CIM), as the cause for the San Quentin coronavirus outbreak.
“The first imminent threat is that you again would be repeating the mistake of what led to San Quentin,” Eric Balaban, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) staff attorney, told the Times.
Another transfer would be exceedingly difficult to carry out safely, said Balaban.
San Quentin infections ballooned to 2,239 positive coronavirus cases and 29 deaths including one correctional officer with the transfers. This after the prison reported zero coronavirus cases before the transfers. Now the prison has reached a death rate higher than other California correctional facilities, according to state data.
“Merely moving people from one overcrowded prison to another overcrowded prison does not reduce the risks for outbreaks,” said James King, a former San Quentin incarcerated person and current state campaigner and prisoner reform advocate for the Ella Baker Center. “It’s mitigating one potential hotspot by adding to others.”
The pending transfers also have some San Quentin residents on edge by potentially having their programs interrupted.
“I hate it. Flat out,” said resident Brandon Riddle-Terrell to SQ News. “The court’s decision to have inmates transferred would make those who are not fortunate enough to be released jeopardize their opportunities and restrict access to the programs needed to prepare them for the parole board and possible release. Not every California prison has the type of programs that San Quentin does,” he added.
Health experts visited and inspected San Quentin. They released their findings titled Urgent Memo in June. The experts included Dr. Brie Williams of the University of California San Francisco and Dr. Stefano Bertozzi, dean emeritus of the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health.
“There are currently 3,547 people in total incarcerated at San Quentin, approximately 1,400 of whom have at least one COVID-19 risk factor (as do many, unknown, staff members). This means these individuals are at heightened risk of requiring ICU treatment and/or mortality if infected…,” said the memo. “Given the unique architecture and age of San Quentin (built in the mid 1800s and early 1900s), there is exceedingly poor ventilation, extraordinary close living quarters, and inadequate sanitation,” the memo emphasized.
“We therefore recommend that the prison population at San Quentin be reduced to 50% of current capacity (even further reduction would be more beneficial) via decarceration,” continued the memo, cited within the court order.
The courts ruled unless or until the prison can reduce its population to the 50% level, the 8th Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment will continue to exist at San Quentin. Under its current conditions, there is insufficient space for physical distancing, a factor required in order to contain the spread, the health memo reported.
“We respectfully disagree with the court’s determination,” said Dana Simas, CDCR spokesperson, in a statement, the Times reported.
CDCR said it has taken the proper steps to curb the coronavirus within the state’s prison system by releasing more than 21,000 prisoners, suspending the intake of prisoners from county jails and other state institutions, according to their response to the petition and information on the department’s website. It added that CDCR instituted the requirement to wear masks, provided guidance on physical distancing, and enhanced sanitation procedures.
Simas said the department had done its best to manage what has been an unprecedented crisis, noted the Times.
“Speaking in terms of just physical distancing, having a single-cell would provide me with much needed peace of mind,” said Willard R. Williams, SQ resident to the San Quentin News.
“I think it’s a good thing that the courts ruled as they did. It’s something that should’ve been done a long time ago,” Williams added.
“Physicians and public health authorities regularly warn that prisons ‘are in no way equipped to deal with an outbreak once it gets in,’” noted the petition. “If an institution is already operating at far beyond its capacity, it is going to be very difficult to find areas where prisoners with suspected COVID-19 can be isolated,” the petition added.
CDCR and the state still have the option to appeal the decision or put forth its plan on how it will comply with the order.
“There is no assurance San Quentin will not experience a second or even third spike, as it did during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918,” said the court order, “which according to the resident prison physician of San Quentin at the time consisted of three district epidemics.”
In 1918, the three outbreaks happened in the months of April, October and November within the prison, according to the court papers.