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Motion Seeks California Prisoner Release Over Coronavirus Threat; State Asks Court Not To Interfere

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- Lawyers for California prison inmates will ask a three-judge federal court on Thursday for an order releasing some prisoners, saying there is a danger the COVID-19 coronavirus could "spread like wildfire" among inmates and staff in the state's crowded prisons.

The motion was filed last week in two long-running prison overcrowding cases filed in federal court in San Francisco in 2001 and federal court in Sacramento in 1990.

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a three-judge panel's order that the prison population must be reduced to correct "grossly inadequate health care" that violated constitutional standards.

In the new motion, the prisoners ask for orders reducing the prison population in order to achieve social distancing, as well as releasing or relocating prisoners who are at low risk for criminal conduct but high risk for severe illness or death from the virus.


Attorneys for the inmates wrote, "The system is far too crowded.  The prisons house tens of thousands of people in crowded dormitories where they live, sleep, and bathe within feet—sometimes inches—of each other."

In a response filed on Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration said it is already taking "immediate, bold and appropriate steps" to protect prisoners and staff, and asked the court not to interfere with the executive branch's work at a time of crisis.

Those steps include the planned early release of about 3,500 non-violent inmates who are close to release dates, suspending intake of new prisoners from county jails and moving about 500 inmates to other prisons with unoccupied spaces, state lawyers said in the brief.

State lawyers wrote, "This court must not accept plaintiffs' invitation to substitute its judgment for that of a co-equal branch, which is far better positioned to respond to this unprecedented emergency."

The state currently houses about 114,000 prisoners in its 35 adult institutions, according to the brief.

The panel will be made up of 9th U.S. Circuit Judge Kim Wardlaw of Pasadena, U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar of Oakland, and U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller of Sacramento. They are replacing the three judges on the original panel, who have retired or passed away.

A federal law, the Prison Litigation Reform Act, requires that a court order for reduction of prison population can be made only by a three-judge panel.


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