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‘Worst epidemiological disaster’: Court blasts San Quentin’s handling of COVID-19, orders prison’s population halved

 In a ruling blasting “deliberate indifference” at the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation that resulted in 29 coronavirus-related deaths at San Quentin, a California appeals court has ordered the prison to reduce its population by roughly half.

However, the decision allows San Quentin inmates to be transferred to other California prisons — the very maneuver that appears to have caused the deadly, months-long outbreak at San Quentin.

The order from the First District Appellate Court calls for the prison to reduce its population of inmates — reported to be 3,547 in June of this year — down to 1,775. The decision encourages the prison to release people and includes new mechanisms for people older than 60 to be freed, but also allows the transfers.

“Respondents (CDCR) are free to employ the means they determine will most quickly achieve the necessary population reduction,” the decision says.

A spokeswoman for the agency said simply that prison officials are working to “determine the next steps.” The court’s decision could be appealed to the California Supreme Court.

Jay Jordan, the executive director for Californians for Safety and Justice — a group that advocates for decarceration and crime prevention — said he views the decision as a continuation rulings by other branches of government, like the passage of Propositions 47 and 57, that have consistently trended away from the so-called “tough on crime” era of the 1990s, a cause of the state’s prison overpopulation.

“I hope (CDCR) does take the long view and uses what’s on the books, like Prop. 57, to release these people,” Jordan said. “We don’t want to see them transferred. That’s why San Quentin became a petri dish.”

CDCR’s decision in May to transfer hundreds of people from California Institution for Men in Chino — at the time the prison with the worst virus outbreak — to San Quentin was “the catalyst” for San Quentin’s outbreak, the decision says. What followed was “the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history” — nearly 3,000 virus cases and the deaths of 28 inmates and one corrections officer.

“The CIM inmates sent to San Quentin had not been tested for up to a month before the transfer,” the judges wrote. “Some of the transferred inmates immediately felt ill after entering San Quentin and several tested positive shortly after arrival.”

As the outbreak hammered death row and spread to more than half the population, officials at San Quentin approved some releases, set up outdoor tends on recreation yards, and confined other prisoners to their cells for days on end. They did not follow the advice of public health experts, who were recommending a 50 percent reduction as early as June.

CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas said in an email that “we respectfully disagree with the court’s determination.”

“CDCR has taken extensive actions to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March, the department has released more than 22,000 persons, resulting in the lowest prison population in decades,” she said, later adding, “As of today, CDCR’s COVID-19 cases are the lowest they have been since May (477 cases reported today, and over 14,000 resolved), with San Quentin recording only one new case among the incarcerated population in nearly a month.”

Statewide, the statewide prison population remains at around 8,000 people past its design capacity, according to a CDCR report released Oct. 14.

“Prisons and jails have become de facto mental health treatment centers and drug treatment centers. That’s what they’ve become,” Jordan said. He later added, “Until we start to look at why people are going to prison, we’re going to continue to have this problem.”

Nate Gartrell
The Mercury News

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