For the first time ever, public court hearings were live-streamed via Zoom inside San Quentin. Incarcerated residents convened daily in the chapel to watch fellow prisoners, corrections officials, and medical experts testify about SQ’s COVID-19 outbreak.
More than 300 SQ petitioners alleged claims of “deliberate indifference” and “cruel and unusual punishment” in the historic class-action lawsuit that places overcrowding of mass incarceration at issue.
“We weren’t deliberately indifferent,” said corrections Lt. Sam Robinson, SQ’s public information officer. “It’s a high bar to prove. We believe the outcome will be in favor of the state.”
Spanning 11 days of testimony May 20 to June 4, petitioners’ attorneys highlighted administrative actions, and in some instances failures to act, that they argued contributed to the outbreak.
Petitioners originally filed the suit seeking immediate release from the COVID-19 conditions at San Quentin.
Since then, the immediate crisis of the outbreak has passed, and attorneys representing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) argued petitioners’ claims hold no merit because prisoners were 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 transfer of 122 prisoners from the California Institute for Men (CIM) on May 30, 2020, the spread of COVID-19 infections led to 28 incarcerated deaths as well as the death of one CDCR sergeant in San Quentin.
One year later, prisoners attended the Zoom hearings and listened to petitioner after petitioner testify about the 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 backward 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?”
The incarcerated audience packed the chapel on May 25 and 26 to see Acting Warden Ron Broomfield face questioning from prisoners’ rights attorney Charles Carbone.
“Warden Broomfield is indeed either a respondent or the respondent,” stated Carbone in requesting the court’s permission to treat Broomfield as if under cross-examination.
Named acting warden in February 2020, Broomfield suddenly found himself and SQ administration in late May preparing to accept busloads of transfers from the COVID-19 viral hotspot of CIM — with only three days’ notice.
Court documents and independent prison oversight reports by the Office of the Inspector General clearly demonstrated that Broomfield had no say in CDCR’s emergency decision to transfer 122 medically vulnerable prisoners from CIM to San Quentin.
Questioned by Carbone under subpoena, Broomfield defended the prison’s COVID-19 Mitigation and Surge Plan in the aftermath of the ensuing outbreak.
When asked under oath if, as warden, he is responsible for the health and safety of every San Quentin prisoner, Broomfield answered “Yes.”
Attorney Khari Tillery continued to question Broomfield the next day on SQ’s staffing procedures, quarantine housing protocols, and other administrative decisions.
“They think because it happened to us, it makes it less illegal,” said petitioner Michael Calvin Holmes. “If it had happened to a bunch of college students in a middle-class neighborhood, they would have lost their shirts already.”
The incarcerated community’s reaction to his testimony did not sit well with Broomfield.
“It hurts me to hear those things,” the warden later told the San Quentin News. “I understand the anger from the population. I’m angry, too. And I knew when I took a leadership position, that I’d have to deal with the heat when things go wrong.
“There’s only one of me and 3,000 of you. I want you guys to know that I’m a sincere leader.”
On the stand, Broomfield would not concede that San Quentin’s population needs to be reduced by 50% to protect its incarcerated residents from the threat of airborne transmissible infectious diseases.
Expert after expert gave detailed testimony about the effects of overcrowded conditions where two prisoners live in 4’x11’x8’ cells in five-tiered housing units with windows welded shut.
The medical and science experts described what they observed inside SQ as “foreboding” and “the worst outbreak in a correctional setting I’ve ever seen.”
The only way to effectively mitigate any viral danger is by drastically reducing SQ’s population, testified UCSF’s Dr. David Sears, epidemiology specialist Dr. Meghan Morris, infectious disease researcher Dr. Daniel Parker, and Cal/OSHA biohazard investigator Channing Sheets.
In the context of the overall effectiveness of SQ’s COVID-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?”
Sears, Morris, Parker, and Sheets each said the outcome would have been virtually the same. SQ’s physical architecture and poor ventilation render mask-wearing and isolated quarantining all but pointless, given the grossly compacted living conditions.
Aside from prisoners’ claims, Cal/OSHA cited San Quentin for numerous “willful” violations of workplace safety regulations.
A California appeals court decision in October ordered the SQ population to be reduced to 1,775, but that ruling has since been appealed and vacated.
SQ’s total occupancy is currently around 2,500; however, weekly new arrivals are increasing the population.
“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 infectious disease expert Dr. Jeffrey Klausner of USC. He testified that SQ has developed sufficient herd immunity for maximum occupancy, due to its current 80% incarcerated vaccination rate.
When questioned about SQ staff’s 50% vaccination rate, Klausner stated that officers don’t interact enough with prisoners to meet the scientific criteria for “exposure.”
But almost immediately after the prison began reopening in early May, SQ’s West Block — a building with more than 600 residents — underwent a norovirus outbreak that caused the housing unit to be quarantined for almost two weeks.