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Judge Rules CDCR Inflicted Cruel and Unusual Punishment on San Quentin Inmates During Massive COVID Outbreak

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- A judge has ruled California prison officials inflicted cruel and unusual punishment on inmates at San Quentin State Prison as a massive COVID-19 outbreak infected more that 2,600 prisoners and staff in the summer of 2020.

Marin County Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Howard made a final ruling in the case against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) on Tuesday, the San Francisco Public Defender's Office announced Thursday.

The court affirmed the CDCR acted with deliberate indifference and violated the constitutional rights of nearly 300 inmates who petitioned the court alleging unlawful incarceration under the Eighth Amendment. The inmates had filed emergency petitions after the CDCR transferred 121 prisoners from the California Institution for Men - at the time, the prison with the highest COVID rate in the state - to San Quentin without properly testing them or quarantining them once at San Quentin.

At the time, there were no COVID-19 cases at San Quentin. After the transfer - and the refusal by prison officials to heed calls by health experts to urgently reduce the incarcerated population - more than 2,600 people living and working at San Quentin tested positive for COVID-19 and 29 died, making it one of the worst outbreaks in the country.

The outbreak led to a months-long prison lockdown where inmates were confined to tiny cells around the clock, with inmates sharing cells too small for one person even when one inmate showed symptoms.

"Because [CDCR] did not reduce the population as recommended, it effectively consigned hundreds of [incarcerated persons] to unwarranted, unnecessary, solitary confinement," Howard said in his ruling. "And not just for a day or two. Where [CDCR] had the ability to move [people] to other facilities or release them, the court can conceive of no argument to support forcing [them] to remain in a cell smaller than 50 square feet, with two bunks, and a cellmate, for virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for months on end. Doing so enhanced [their] exposure to COVID-19. For the duration it lasted, it also amounted to solitary confinement in violation of common standards of decency."

The habeas corpus petitions were joined together in Marin County Superior Court and the petitioners were represented by a coalition of public defenders, prisoner rights attorneys, and law firms.

During the COVID outbreak at San Quentin, 75% of the prison population contracted the coronavirus; 28 inmates and 1 correctional officer died. Despite the judge's final ruling, there was no relief ordered for the petitioners since the outbreak has been contained and there is now high vaccination rate among the prison population.

In a statement to KPIX, state correctional officials said they "acted with the best information available at the onset of the pandemic."

"The department acted with the best information available at the onset of the pandemic, which evolved in real time, as did our response and mitigation efforts," the statement read. "For almost two years, we have been quick and diligent to implement efforts to mitigate COVID-19 in our prisons, and have been able to keep infections low, have had no hospitalizations from inmates housed at San Quentin in more than a year, and continue to encourage vaccines and mask wearing, and will focus on ensuring the health and safety of the people in our custody, our staff, and our communities."

"With vaccine acceptance rates on the rise for both the population and staff, SQ's population is 90% vaccinated and staff at 63%, we look forward to returning to a more consistent state of operations and a decreased need for quarantine/isolation."

In a preliminary ruling in the case last month, Howard rejected inmates' request that he essentially reinstate an appeals court ruling from October 2020 requiring corrections officials to cut the inmate population to less than half of San Quentin's designed capacity.

The California Supreme Court put that appeals court order on hold last December pending the trial in Howard's courtroom this summer.

"The scathing judicial indictment of CDCR's actions last year is warranted and it is too little, too late," said attorney Danielle Harris with the San Francisco Public Defender Office in a prepared statement. "This hideous example of systemic violence towards marginalized and oppressed people was wholly avoidable. If the Governor who presided over this deadly disaster still will not act to drastically reduce the prison population at antiquated places like San Quentin, the Legislature must urgently do so."

"Prisoners subject to preventable death and disease are now being told 'oops, sorry' by the courts" said Charles Carbone, one of the lawyers representing the San Quentin petitioners said in prepared statement. "Justice requires more — especially when this pandemic is not over."

There are several other lawsuits resulting from the San Quentin outbreak, including a federal civil rights lawsuit by the family of 61-year-old inmate Daniel Ruiz, who died, and a proposed Marin County class-action lawsuit on behalf of inmate Steven Malear and what the lawsuit says are at least 1,400 infected San Quentin inmates.


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