A California appeals court has ordered San Quentin to significantly reduce the prison’s population and take steps to protect the incarcerated and staff from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ruling came in a lawsuit by Ivan Von Staich, who maintained the warden and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials acted with “deliberate indifference” and that relief was warranted, according to the Oct. 20 decision.
Petitioner Von Staich, 64, suffers from respiratory problems, the result of bullet fragments lodged in his left lung. His sworn declaration to the court said … “he and his 65-year-old cellmate, both of whom had tested positive for COVID-19 (although petitioner was asymptomatic), were placed on the fourth tier of West Block in a cell which was like others in that facility.
The cell “was so small that you can touch the walls with your hands,” the declaration stated. It claimed “protecting oneself from infection of COVID-19 in this open cell is impossible” because “there is no opportunity to engage in social distancing,” court documents revealed.
Amanda Klonsky wrote in The New York Times on March 16, 2020, that “prisons and jails have been long associated with inordinately high transmission probabilities of infectious disease. Early on, physicians, public health officials, and the national Centers for Disease Control sounded the alarm that prisons and jails could become the epicenters of the (COVID-19) pandemic.”
The remedy sought by the petitioner was placement in a residential facility supervised by CDCR where he had already been accepted, subject to a brief period of quarantine, said court documents.
By all accounts, the COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin has been the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history, and there is no reason to think it will not experience a second or third spike, as it did during the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918, according to an article by the resident prison physician at the time, Dr. L.L. Stanley: “Influenza at San Quentin State Prison”, (May 9, 1918).
Dr. Chris Breyer, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, stated that … “it was self-evident from the 75% infection rate and the rates of morbidity at San Quentin that its response to the outbreak there has been a failure to protect the lives of the inmates and staff,” according to court documents.
The appellate court decision said “it is doubtful any correctional agency in the United States is more familiar with the adverse consequences of mass incarceration on inmate medical care, and the need to prevent them, as CDCR is or should be, given its litigation of the issues in the Plata and Coleman cases since the turn of the century,” court documents show.
In granting petitioner’s writ, the court did not order his release or any other prisoners at San Quentin. State officials at San Quentin were ordered to remove Ivan Von Staich from San Quentin “by transfer to a CDCR facility that is able to provide the necessary physical distancing and other measures to protect against COVID-19, or to another placement meeting these criteria.””
Officials were also told to “immediately commence a design and implementation of a plan to expedite release or transfer of the number of prisoners necessary to reduce the population to 50% of its June 2020 population,” court documents show.
In order to achieve this reduction, state officials were ordered to revise and rethink their expedited release plans to include prisoners over the age of 60, who have served at least 25 years of their sentences and are eligible for parole and second and third strike prisoners, even if they are serving time for violent offenses.
State officials were ordered to ensure that prisoners fitting the specifications of the Elderly Parole Program receive “special consideration” for release prescribed by that program.
Four San Quentin prisoners agreed to be interviewed for this article. All were glad for the court’s ruling, but expressed concern for the future, and what would happen next.
- Anthony Williams, committed from Riverside County to a term of 16 Years To Life, here at San Quentin for five years said… “deliberate indifference” is exactly how the CDCR operates, and as soon as no one is watching will return to business as usual.”
- Walter Ridley, 59, a nonviolent third striker sentenced in Los Angeles County, here for 19 years said, “Of course I would like to go home,” but he believes he will be transferred to another prison as a result of the ruling.
- Ron Jeffrion, 55, sentenced in Los Angeles County, at San Quentin for 15 years, was hit hard by the COVID outbreak. He spent weeks in ICU and 30 days hooked up to machines at Seton Hospital in Daly City. He said he does not hold much hope for things to change.
- Jose “Big Boy” Godinezi, sentenced in San Mateo County to 15 years, at San Quentin for nine years, was glad to hear about the court ruling, but expressed concern over those responsible “not being held accountable.” He added, “There are a lot of people who should get released.”
In a footnote to the Von Staich decision, on October 10, 2020, the appellate court wrote that rather than transferring the petitioner to another facility, the administration had moved Von Staich into a single cell in a quarantined area of San Quentin. The court noted that “This solution, however, does nothing to advance the population reduction necessary to protect the inmate population at San Quentin.”
The case has since been sent back to the lower courts for an evidentiary hearing.