For the first time ever, public court hearings were live-streamed via Zoom inside San Quentin. Prisoners convened daily in the chapel to watch friends, neighbors, corrections officials and medical experts testify about SQ’s devastating COVID-19 ordeal.
More than 300 SQ residents alleged claims of “deliberate indifference” and “cruel and unusual punishment” in the historic class-action lawsuit that ultimately placed the rampant overcrowding of mass incarceration on trial.
“We weren’t deliberately indifferent,” commented SQ Public Information Officer Sam Robinson.
“It’s a high bar to prove.“We believe the outcome will be in favor of the State.”
Spanning 12 days of testimony from May 20 to June 4, petitioners’ attorneys laid out a scathing indictment of administrative actions and missteps that caused one of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks to hit any U.S. prison.
Petitioners originally filed the suit seeking immediate release from the horrors of COVID-19 at San Quentin.
But now that SQ’s incarcerated community has either recovered or died, attorney generals for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) argue petitioners’ claims hold no merit because prisoners are no longer in danger.
“They want to stand up for CDCR and make it about the conditions now,” said petitioner Duane Gillespie after hearing respondents’ opening arguments. “But we couldn’t be in court back then when it happened. I’m a little upset about it.”
Stemming from the ill-fated transfer of 122 prisoners from the California Institute for Men (CIM) on May 30, 2020, the massive SQ outbreak ran unchecked for months and led to 28 incarcerated deaths.
One year later, prisoners attended the Zoom hearings and listened to petitioner after petitioner testify about the inhumane treatment they incurred during the COVID-19 shutdown and subsequent outbreak.
Orlando Harris experienced the rapid spread of COVID-19 firsthand in SQ’s North Block. He took a front-row seat in the chapel every day.
“It’s all backwards with these people,” said Harris. “When we go in front of the parole board, all we ask is that they look at who we are today—not who we were 20 years ago, 30 years ago.
“But in this case, they only want to talk about right now, today. They don’t want to be held accountable for the mistakes they made last year. How crazy is that?”
“Your Honor, I request the court’s permission to treat the witness not just as a respondent, but as THE respondent,” Carbone asked of Marin County Superior Court Judge Geoffrey M. Howard.
Under heavy fire, Broomfield did his best to defend the prison’s so-called COVID-19 “mitigation and surge plan” by deflecting questions of accountability. He often said he didn’t recall or didn’t have the necessary information to answer.
Attorney Khari Tillery continued to push Broom-field the next day on SQ’s inadequate staffing procedures, nonsensical quarantine housing protocols and other administrative failures.
“They made him look incompetent,” said petitioner Michael Calvin Holmes. “He wouldn’t take responsibility for anything. He kept passing it off on medical—but murder is murder.
“They think because it happened to us it makes it less illegal. If it had happened to a bunch of college students in a middle-class neighborhood, they would have lost their shirts already.”
Broomfield—just like every other respondent witness—refused to concede that San Quentin’s maximum “design capacity” of 4000 needs to be reduced by 50% to protect its incarcerated population from infectious disease.
“There’s just too many people living in these deplorable conditions,” said petitioner Juan Haines. “How can they defend against that?
“Even Derek Chauvin had a better defense than these prison officials.”
When asked under oath if, as Warden, he is responsible for the health and safety of every San Quentin prisoner, Broomfield answered “Yes.”
Expert after expert gave detailed testimony about the stifling effects of overcrowded conditions where two prisoners live cramped within 4’x11’x8’ cells stacked atop each other in five-tiered buildings.
Medical and science experts described the atrocities they observed inside SQ as “foreboding” and “the worst outbreak in a correctional setting I’ve ever seen.”
UCSF’s Dr. David Sears, epidemiology specialist Dr. Meghan Morris, infectious disease researcher Dr. Daniel Parker, CalOSHA biohazard investigator Channing Sheets—they all agreed that the only way to effectively mitigate any viral danger is by drastically reducing SQ’s population.
In the context of the overall effectiveness of SQ’s CO-VID-19 safety protocols during the outbreak, petitioner attorneys asked, “What would the end result have been if San Quentin had simply done nothing at all?”
The experts each said the outcome would have been exactly the same. SQ’s physical architecture and poor ventilation render mask-wearing and isolated quarantining all but pointless, given its grossly compacted living conditions.
Aside from prisoners’ claims, CalOSHA cited San Quentin for numerous “willful” violations of workplace safety regulations. Investigator Sheets testified that SQ continues to appeal the citations as a stall tactic.
A previous California court decision in October ordered the SQ population reduced down to 1,775, but that ruling has since been appealed and vacated.
The pressing realities of COVID-19 forced CDCR and SQ to drop the total occupancy under 2,500. But those days are over now, as busloads of new arrivals threaten to fill the prison back up.
“CDCR’s gonna do what they want,” said petitioner Larry Williams, who testified about being an incarcerated critical worker exposed to cell after cell and tier upon tier of his infected peers.
“Hopefully this case will bring about some real prison reform—where they actually do something, not just say they gonna do something.”
Respondents presented only one infectious disease expert, USC’s Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, who testified that SQ has developed enough herd immunity for maximum occupancy, due to its current 80% incarcerated vaccination rate.
When questioned about SQ staff’s meager 50% vaccination rate, Klausner stated that officers don’t interact enough with prisoners to meet the scientific criteria for “exposure.”
But even as Klausner gave testimony, SQ’s West Block—a building with more than 600 residents—was suffering a norovirus outbreak that caused the entire housing unit to be quarantined for almost two weeks.
Attorney generals continually objected to the relevance of any facts beyond the limited scope of COVID-19, but attorney Taylor Reeves used her cross-examination of another respondent witness to get the current norovirus situation admitted into evidence.
CIM Associate Warden Jason Bishop worked at CIM when the fatal transfer occurred and subsequently took a temporary position at SQ during the outbreak.
“Do you know when the first inmate died of COVID-19 at San Quentin?” petitioner attorney Thomas Brown asked. “Do you know the name of the first inmate who died?
“Do you know the name of the last inmate to die? Do you know any of their names?”
Bishop did not know the answer to any of those questions.
Petitioner Jesse Johnson sat in the chapel every day to view the hearings in their entirety. “I just see them dodging blame, passing the buck, telling lies,” he said.
“I’m just doing this for the people who suffered and died here—and for the future people who become incarcerated here,” Johnson said of his reasons for joining the lawsuit and testifying. “I’m doing it for them.“
Someone needs to hold this place accountable for what happened, so this never happens again.”