The family of a beloved San Quentin correctional sergeant who died of COVID-19 filed a wrongful death lawsuit against prison officials.
The federal civil rights suit claims that his death was preventable and resulted from unsafe conditions at the prison created by “intentional and deliberately indifferent” decisions.
“Officials created a COVID cesspool and then required their inmates and employees to marinate in it …”, said family attorney Julia Sherwin during a Zoom press conference.
“It’s shocking and appalling that CDCR would risk not only the inmates’ lives but also their staff’s lives with these completely reckless decisions.”
The lawsuit, filed Aug. 24, is one of several filed against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and San Quentin. The lawsuits blamed the COVID outbreak at San Quentin on the transfer of 122 inmates on May 30, 2020, from the California Institute for Men near Chino. Some of the transferred men had COVID.
At the time, San Quentin had no reported COVID cases. The outbreak captured national media attention and was called a “public health disaster” by the California Office of the Inspector General.
San Quentin officials had no role or control over the transfer but did assume custody decisions upon the buses’ arrival.
Sgt. Gilbert Polanco, 55, was diagnosed with COVID in June and died Aug. 9, 2020, according to the Sacramento Bee. Due to medical safety precautions, his family was not able to be at his bedside.
The suit alleges Polanco’s constitutional rights were violated, as was the Americans With Disabilities Act, and that negligence resulted in his death and subsequent emotional distress to his wife and children.
Polanco’s family attorneys are expected to seek millions in compensation as well as reforms, reported the San Francisco Chronicle.
“The defendants violated the most basic legal requirements like providing their employees N95 respirators,” Sherwin told the Los Angeles Times.
“They violated basic common sense like testing the Chino inmates before moving them to San Quentin and quarantining them from the rest of the population upon arrival.”
Co-attorney Michael Haddad added, “COVID-19 obviously has affected our entire society, but the San Quentin disaster was entirely preventable.”
Polanco, an Army veteran, is remembered as a devoted family man and dedicated employee who was well-respected by colleagues and prisoners alike.
He served 34 years at San Quentin. His wife said he regarded the incarcerated community as a second family, according to the lawsuit.
The Times and Chronicle reported that, at the time of Polanco’s death, then-CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz called him “an example of the best of CDCR.”
Warden Ron Bloomfield praised Polanco’s “unwavering commitment and bravery as a peace officer working on the front line every day.”
Incarcerated community members echoed that praise and are still lamenting his death.
“If you had a problem, you could go to him to help you, no matter what it was,” said Rome Watson, a SQ resident since 1997. “His door was always open — and it didn’t matter what color you was, either.”
Resident JC Carr said, “Never did I think in my wildest dreams that he would die from it. It’s been hard, man, losing him and two other friends to COVID-19,” said Carr, who’s been at SQ since 2012.
“Some officers don’t care whether you live or die. Polanco wasn’t like that. He treated me like a man, not a prisoner. He was the first officer to make me put my guard down.”
“He always had a gentle spirit about him,” said Mike Adams, who has resided in SQ since 2005.
Adams said he’s still traumatized by Polanco’s death. “When he died, I guess it hit me that we really are all in this together, the green and the blue. We’re all human.”
Watson also gets emotional talking about Polanco. “He left the office that day and said, ‘Rome, I think I got that crap.’” It was the last time he saw his friend.
Along with Sgt. Polanco, 28 San Quentin prisoners died of COVID-19 during the out-break.
“It wasn’t safe. They didn’t have masks at that time — the inmates were making masks, said Polanco’s widow, Patricia, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
“He was just working so much,” she said through tears on a Zoom call with CBS Bay Area. “I asked him not to. Let someone else take that other shift. And he would tell me there’s nobody — they have no one.”
According to the lawsuit, Polanco “told his wife, ‘It’s my job’ to protect the inmates and not let them die.”
In a habeas class-action lawsuit filed by over 300 SQ residents, Cal/OSHA investigator Channing Sheets recently testified.
“You can’t not have (adequate) dedicated staffing,” Sheets said under oath. “I understand if you’re solely responsible … but there was a whole (multi-agency) team deployed to assist them, so staffing really wasn’t an excuse for me.”
The Polanco family lawsuit reiterates Sheets’s testimony, claiming management didn’t carry out its responsibilities, despite explicit warnings and offers of help.
“Like us, he just wanted to do his time and get back to his family,” recalled Adams.
“I just want them to be accountable and take responsibility for his death,” Patricia Polanco told KTVU Fox2. “This should have never happened.”
CDCR representatives sent a statement to KRON4 saying, in part: “As far as the Polanco case is concerned, CDCR is not pleased with the lawsuit, but we will evaluate the details and determine the next steps.
“We extend our deepest condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Sgt. Polanco.”
Polanco’s survivors are not the only ones claiming his death was preventable.
“If they had handled it the way they should, he would still be living today,” said Watson. “He didn’t have to go.”
Watson said he was reluctant to speak on record but did so anyway because of his deep respect for Polanco. “No one can ever take his place; he was one of a kind. This should have been prevented.”
Carr agreed with these sentiments. “I don’t want to be disrespectful, but if they didn’t transfer all those people, we wouldn’t of had to go through all that, and a lot of people would be alive today, including Polanco.”
After his funeral, Sgt. Polanco’s ashes were scattered on San Quentin grounds, where his legacy lives on in the memories of those he so faithfully served and served with.
“God bless his family, God bless his wife,” said Carr. “We always got him in our prayers.”