Federal judge denies officials’ bid for protection under PREP Act following deadly wave of Covid infections in 2020; prisoners’ lawsuits allowed to move forward
A federal judge has refused to dismiss a handful of lawsuits by San Quentin (SQ) residents, saying that prison staff and executives orchestrated a prisoner transfer that caused a deadly COVID outbreak at the prison in 2020, according to a Courthouse News Service report.
The outbreak, which killed one staff member and 28 residents, happened after SQ officials decided to transfer 122 medically vulnerable residents from the California Institute of Men (CIM) in Chino, Calif, where there was an active COVID outbreak. According to the California Attorney General, the transfer was intended to protect medically vulnerable CIM residents from the virus. However, some transferees were already experiencing COVID symptoms at the time they were loaded onto the bus to SQ.
Prior to the transfer, there were no COVID-19 cases at SQ, but immediately afterward, 15 of the transferees tested positive, according to the report. Three weeks later 1,135 residents were infected. By the end of August, that number had jumped to 2,237 residents and 277 staff members. Lawmakers in California have called the transfer and ensuing COVID outbreak the “worst prison health screw up in state history,” the report notes.
the lawsuits were filed, officials claimed immunity under the Public Readiness And Emergency Preparedness Act (PREP), saying the law—which is intended to shield public officials from liability during public health emergencies—protected them in their failure to take effective countermeasures against the outbreak. However, District Judge William Orrick the III ruled that the officials mishandled the transfer and failed to quarantine infected transferees. Orrick said this constitutes a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment. He also said that the PREP Act does not cover a prison transfer or advise protection to all COVID related decisions within the prison setting, according to the report.
“Just because we’re locked up, doesn’t mean we don’t have feelings or needs,” said Carlos Smith, a resident of SQ who is included in the suit. “California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) wants us to be accountable and responsible when we go to the parole board, yet when they are wrong, they want to minimize their wrongs,” he added. Smith is still dealing with long term COVID-19 symptoms from the outbreak.
The defendants named in the prisoners’ lawsuits include Retired CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz, former San Quentin Warden Ronald Davis, and current Warden Ronald Broomfield. They also include Mona Houston, the warden at Chino from August 2019 through Jan. 4, 2021, as well as a number of head physicians and health care “executive officers” at both prisons. Orrick recognized that each of the officials named in the suit somehow contributed to the circumstances surrounding the prison transfer, increasing the incarcerated individuals’ COVID risk, the report said.
Orrick said that prison officials had “fair warning” that exposing prison residents to a communicable disease would constitute a violation of their Eighth Amendment rights, the report noted. “I cannot agree that defendants were not on notice that their conduct might violate the Constitution,” Orrick said.
Kevin Schrubb, the incarcerated person at SQ who initiated the lawsuit, said “I do empathize with these vulnerable Chino prisoners… but I also adhere to the theory of self-preservation; don’t harm me because you want to save someone else.” When asked what he would have wanted from CDCR had he been one of the transferees, he went on to say, “I would have wanted CDCR to treat me with compassion and not place someone else in danger.”
CDCR Spokesperson Dana Simas said that the department is reviewing the recent ruling, and determining next steps.