Two months after a local court ruled that the COVID-19 emergency at San Quentin State Prison had passed, the entire California prison system has gone back on lockdown as the virus’ omicron variant spreads rapidly through the state’s correctional institutions, with hundreds infected at San Quentin alone.
In November, a Marin County Superior Court judge issued his final ruling on the habeas corpus petitions of approximately 270 San Quentin residents who filed for relief during the prison’s 2020 coronavirus outbreak.
Judge Geoffrey Howard found that corrections officials had acted with deliberate indifference and violated the prisoners’ Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment, but that high vaccination rates among the incarcerated had effectively nullified the unconstitutional conditions which led to the outbreak that killed 28 residents and one guard and infected 2,600 more.
Two months after the ruling was issued, the prison is back on lockdown and suffering another outbreak as the “omicron” variant spreads through the facility, infecting staff and prisoners alike amid conditions of confinement which remain largely unchanged after the first outbreak.
Prisoner rights advocates and community leaders point to low vaccination rates among California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) staff as the primary cause of the current outbreak, according to a Huffington Post article.
“It is evident that the California State Prison outbreak is being fueled largely by resistance to vaccinations by CDCR staff,” said James King, campaign manager for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
“The cost of staff’s refusal to comply with reasonable safety measures is devastating for incarcerated people, who are once again experiencing mass outbreaks, 24-hour lockdowns, separation from loved ones, loss of access to programming, and serious consequences to their physical and mental health.”
According to a Jan. 20 HuffPost article, nearly a quarter of San Quentin’s staff remains unvaccinated; at other prisons, including Pelican Bay State Prison in Del Norte County, more than half of the facility’s employees have so far refused to receive a COVID vaccine.
“No one challenges the serious risks that COVID-19 poses to incarcerated persons,” said federal Judge Jon Tigar in a 2021 order for all CDCR staff to be vaccinated or show proof of legitimate exemption.
“No one disputes that it is difficult to control the virus once it has been introduced into a prison setting. No one contests that staff are the primary vector for introduction… All agree that a mandatory staff vaccination policy would lower the risk of preventable death and serious medical consequences among incarcerated persons,” the judge wrote.
His order was to have gone into effect in January, in line with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s initial stance on mandatory vaccinations for all California state employees.
Later Newsom reversed his position, appealing the court’s order and siding with the California Correctional Peace Officers’ Association, which according to the HuffPost article contributed $1.75 million to the governor’s anti-recall effort last year.
An appellate court has temporarily stayed the vaccine mandate, but no ruling was made in time to prevent the current COVID crisis.
CDCR reported 52 confirmed cases of the coronavirus the week of Dec. 12, 2021, the HuffPost article said; less than a month later, that number had risen exponentially, to over 4,000 statewide. San Quentin alone accounted for nearly 10% of that figure, with more than 260 COVID-positive prisoners as of Jan. 10.
In response to this new wave of COVID infections, department officials instituted a statewide 15-day “modified program” on Jan. 9, suspending all in-person educational, vocational, and rehabilitative programming, as well as in-person visitation.
Access to telephones, showers, and sunlight varies from one facility to the next, the article reported. San Quentin’s West Block residents average 90 minutes per day out of cells, four days out of every five. CDCR officials later extended the modified program until at least Feb. 17.
In addition to halting in-person programming, San Quentin administrators have once again re-structured prisoner housing, as reflected in the prison’s official Daily Population Reports.
On Jan. 18, the prison’s gymnasium was full to capacity with 108 COVID-positive residents assigned to bunks on the gym floor. A week later, that number had dropped to just 13, with over two dozen more sleeping in the prison chapel, where portable toilets and showers had been trucked in and placed outside. Prison officials also cut H-Unit’s dormitory housing capacity by almost half.
Yet the prison’s population continues to exceed its design capacity of 3,082, with H-Units’ dormitory housing units exceeding their new, lower capacity by nearly 70 as of Jan. 25.
The prison has taken steps to isolate and quarantine residents who either tested positive for COVID or displayed symptoms, but no measures had been taken to reduce the prison’s overall count. North and West Block housing units remained densely populated, with more than three-quarters of all cells double-bunked in spite of an outpouring of warnings from public health officials during the prison’s last outbreak.
“It seems like CDCR started stuffing people back into San Quentin as fast as they could” once the last lockdown was over, said San Quentin resident Noe Bahena, who arrived in November 2021. “Nobody cares that [overcrowding] is what made the last outbreak so deadly.”
Overcrowding is only part of what the Marin court cited in its “Tentative Ruling,” dated Oct. 15, 2021. The court also noted “exceedingly poor ventilation,” and that “San Quentin’s architecture, population density, testing protocols, and inability to socially distance inmates exacerbated [their] risk.”
The prison’s refusal to require staff vaccinations and numerous Cal/OSHA violations were also discussed in the Tentative Ruling.