San Quentin State Prison was fined $421,880 for COVID-19 workplace violations, the Sacramento Bee reported.
San Quentin’s penalties topped the list of roughly 200 employers fined about $4.6 million by California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) for COVID-related workplace violations, the June 24 story stated.
San Quentin’s record fines were for numerous “serious and willful” occupational and safety citations. San Quentin filed an appeal.
“Honestly, this is the worst outbreak in a correctional setting I have ever seen,” said Cal/OSHA enforcement inspector Channing Sheets.
“I’ve investigated a lot of outbreaks in the past 25, 30 years or so, and it had to be, hands down, one of the worst to deal with I’ve ever encountered … the conditions were a perfect storm.”
Sheets testified about the San Quentin outbreak during the Marin County Superior Court proceedings in May and June.
Over 300 SQ residents filed habeas corpus petitions that were joined in a class-action lawsuit. They alleged “willful and deliberate indifference” resulting in violations of their Eighth Amendment rights over the institution’s handling of its COVID-19 outbreak.
“There were a number of things that could have been done, some preventively, some mitigative, after the initial transfer,” said Sheets. He was referring to the 122 COVID-exposed prisoners transferred into SQ in May 2020 from the California Institute for Men (CIM.)
“I know because I was there … In this situation, the individuals should have never been transferred,” Sheets
Cal/OSHA has jurisdiction to protect the safety and health of SQ employees, including California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officers, free staff, and Prison Industry Authority (PIA) incarcerated workers.
Through April 2021, violations inside SQ ranged from insufficient training and safety protocols, irregular COVID testing, missed deadlines for notification and compliance, lack of recommended PPE (personal protective equipment), and inadequate social distancing and quarantining, Sheets reported.
The problems went beyond the initial transfer of incarcerated people from CIM to San Quentin.
“We obviously know they were transferring inmates from housing unit to housing unit, so they were transferring the disease,” said Sheets. “You don’t take positive and negative inmates from different tiers and mix them together.
“That’s a recipe for disaster that should have never been done.”
San Quentin struggled with staffing shortages during the outbreak due to sick employees, one of whom died, and the need to have two officers accompany each incarcerated person who re-quired outside hospital emergency care.
At the outbreak’s apex, numerous remaining staff inside San Quentin worked exhausting overtime shifts.
“You can’t not have dedicated staffing, which was a huge issue, because when you have staff take shifts in a positive unit and then take shifts in a negative unit — that’s a problem,” testified Sheets.
“I understand if you’re solely responsible for financing, and the decision-making, and the implementation and the execution, but there was a whole (multi-agency) team deployed to assist them, so staffing really wasn’t an excuse for me.”
CDCR spokesperson Dana Simas said San Quentin has “made many improvements and already remedied several of the citations.” That includes equipping staff and inmates with PPE and updating the aerosol transmissible diseases (ATD) control plan. “The recommendations were made fairly early but it wasn’t done — implemented until sometime later …” testified Sheets.
“It just took them too long,” said Sheets later. “I think their risk assessment process is poor.”
Sheets investigated the Legionnaire’s outbreak at SQ in 2015 and warned the prison at that time about its vulnerability to respiratory pathogens and the requirement to have an ATD program with a robust “exposure control plan.”
Cal/OSHA also began warning SQ and CDCR about readiness for COVID-19 as early as December 2019, according to court documents.
Research conducted by the Sacramento Bee revealed that the state is having a hard time collecting money from Cal/ OSHA violators, including CDCR. Most employers are appealing their fines.
Such appeals can often result in settlements with vastly reduced fees and delays in compliance, the story noted.
“I believe that the settlements that result from discussions between employers and Cal/OSHA are reflective of what the actual evidence is and what the defenses are in that case,” attorney Lisa Baiocchi, who represents employers appealing their citations, told the Bee.
Workers’ rights advocates and others take a different view. “With many months to get to a citation and many months on appeal, it can be a very long time before workers see any improvement on site,” said Stephen Knight, executive director of Worksafe.
Cal/OSHA is “weighed down by an outdated law that didn’t predict these sort of shenanigans from employers and lawyers,” according to Dr. David Michaels, disease specialist at George Washington University.
Sheets testified that “the [San Quentin] appeal was to slow down the abatement for the serious and willful citations.”
When pressed to define the “willful” aspects of San Quentin’s citations, Sheets explained to the court that, according to Cal/OSHA regulations, “If an employer was put on notice or had previous knowledge or was working with someone to address an issue and then they failed to do so, and they had knowledge and showed blatant dis- regard — that would be classified as willful.”