In January 2022, 91 San Quentin residents filed for habeas corpus relief in the Marin County Superior Court. This new round of legal pleadings is an extension of a similar petition that was filed in June 2021, challenging the prison’s COVID-19 response amid the virus’ latest outbreak.
The petitions, represented by the Marin County Public Defender, call the prison’s conditions “unlawful,” and seek emergency relief in the form of release from custody.
“[The] California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s negligent, reckless, and continuing actions are yet again causing an exponentially-growing outbreak of COVID-19 at San Quentin, subjecting Petitioner to unreasonable risk of serious harm or death through exposure to the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 and severe psychological harm to his mental health through solitary confinement, in contravention of the Eighth Amendment and California Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment,” the petition said.
In 2020, following the transfer of COVID-infected prisoners from another prison, San Quentin experienced a massive outbreak that left more than 2,600 inmates sick and almost 30 dead of the virus.
Amid daily protests in front of the prison, fierce public outcry and the #StopSanQuentinOutbreak movement, prison officials sought ways to decrease San Quentin’s population and alleviate crowding. They began releasing some low-level offenders while moving infected prisoners to makeshift dorms in the facility’s gym, chapels and factories. A ‘tent city’ was erected on the Lower Yard with portable toilets and showers trucked in.
After a 14-month quarantine lockdown, the prison began to get back to some semblance of normalcy in April 2021, with some groups, volunteers, visitors and rehabilitative programming returning.
Immediately, CDCR began repopulating the prison, and population reduction measures were reversed. Bus after bus began unloading at San Quentin’s Receiving and Release with prisoners in orange paper jumpsuits filing off. By the start of 2022, the prison once again exceeded its designed capacity, though it had not returned to pre-pandemic population levels.
Then, beginning January 9 of this year, the prison went back on a “preventive” institution-wide lockdown for two months as the Omicron coronavirus variant became the nation’s dominant strain.
That lockdown, however, wasn’t enough to prevent hundreds of Omicron infections among SQ’s incarcerated. Between January 12 and January 19, the number of cases at the prison jumped from just 5 to 243.
The new round of habeas filings are considered “subsequent” petitions because 300 residents of San Quentin filed for relief in 2020 amid the first outbreak, but were denied relief because high vaccination rates among the incarcerated were deemed to have effectively nullified the virus’ risk.
In addition, the judge in the case, Hon. Geoffrey Howard, said in his final ruling that the prison had showed a “change in attitudes and conduct through the population reduction achieved to date, in combination with the current data regarding the vaccine [among other measures that] reasonably mitigated the risk of harm.”
Petitioners in this case, and other San Quentin residents, feel otherwise.
“Nothing substantial has changed since the last go-round in 2020,” said resident Vincent O’Bannon. “We still have no ventilation in the cell blocks, we’re still double-bunked in tiny cages, and we still have decades’ worth of built-up mold and filth.
“This is no way to treat human beings, regardless of our pasts,” he added.
In his November 16, 2021 order, Judge Howard cautioned officials that his ruling was conditional.
“Evidence about a different population level, combined with different data about vaccine efficacy, or evidence about a new variant might result in a different analysis,” he wrote.
The claims of these 91 petitioners are not going unanswered or unchallenged by State officials. The California Attorney General’s Office has assigned Deputy Attorney General Michael G. Lagrama to the case.
In a request for a time extension filed March 9, Lagrama appeared to minimize the Omicron variant’s threat to the San Quentin population.
“[I]t appears there were only 11 COVID-positive inmates at San Quentin and the number of COVID-positive cases had otherwise subsided at the time of the order,” Lagrama wrote in his Supporting Declaration of Counsel. “As the Court also noted, it seems petitioners have not alleged or shown that they have been hospitalized or suffered severe medical complications from Omicron.”
Lagrama asked for an extension until April 8, 2022, to file the State’s response.