August 17, 2020

PRESS CONTACT: SF Public Defender’s Office – (628) 249-7946 –

Petitioners Allege CDCR Purposefully Ignored Marin County Health Official Warnings about Dangers at San Quentin; Over 400 pages of Evidence Presented 

Habeas petitions allege CDCR actions causing explosive and deadly Covid-19 outbreak at San Quentin constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” 

SAN FRANCISCO – Last week, in the case against San Quentin State Prison (SQ) and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for the infamous botched transfer and handling of the resulting outbreak of COVID-19 at the prison, lawyers for 42 people incarcerated in San Quentin filed over 400 pages detailing failures by CDCR and SQ that have now led to 26 deaths at the prison and immeasurable suffering inside and out. 

Marin County Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Howard, who is overseeing the case, issued an order on August 12 allowing a second consolidated case involving 115 more petitioners to move forward. The First District Court of Appeal is also considering a case by a man incarcerated at SQ, which was filed prior to the transfer and outbreak, but identified the prison’s unique vulnerabilities and correctly predicted what would occur if the virus made its way inside the prison. 

The recent Marin filing revealed that San Quentin ignored the advice of Marin County Public Health Officer Matthew Willis and that CDCR issued letters to local health officials claiming that state prisons are exempt from local health orders. Dr. Willis wrote to Judge Howard independently, emphasizing, “[T]he role of immunity— that is, protection for someone who has been infected from subsequent infection and illness— is still unknown. If immunity after infection is short-lived, or weak, another outbreak of this scale could reoccur. In that case all inmates, regardless of past infection, would be at risk if fundamental measures to prevent spread were not significantly improved.”

In response to calls to reduce the prison population by 50%, incarcerated journalist, and Petitioner Juan Moreno Haines stated, “Since I’ve had COVID-19, I’ve lived with 3 different people, unsure of whether or not that person had the virus or not. The problem that we have at San Quentin is that it’s overcrowded [and] it’s the perfect environment for the virus. It’s the perfect environment for people to die in. To solve this problem, I only suggest to follow the science.” 

“It’s time the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation be held accountable for the harm that they have caused – just like the 100,000+ people in its custody have been. It is unacceptable to allow the state to avoid responsibility for their actions, when they have led to more collective harm, human suffering and devastation than any single incarcerated person in the state of California has caused,” said Danica Rodarmel, an attorney at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. 

Hadar Aviram, Professor of Law at University of California Hastings College of the Law, along with seventeen other prominent criminal justice and corrections scholars and the ACLU of Northern California have weighed in as “amici curiae” or “friends of the court.”  They argue that state and prison officials had ample warning a health crisis of this magnitude could occur at San Quentin, from decades of federal court criticism about the prison healthcare system generally and from specific warnings about COVID-19 from public health experts. “In addition to the botched transfer from Chino to San Quentin, prison authorities failed to provide basic preventative measures, such as testing, protective equipment, and cohorting, even though they received not only advice, but offers of assistance.” They urge the court to act, warning of a considerable possibility of a recurrence of the outbreak at San Quentin, as has already happened in other prisons. 

Veronica Jackson, wife of Petitioner Arthur Jackson, said, “I told my husband on the day we got married that I wouldn’t excuse the man he was, but that I will embrace the man he is now. That is what we are asking the people in power to do – to please treat him according to who he is today, and allow him to come home.”

Last month, Judge Howard issued the first order in the now two consolidated cases of 157 petitioners, with more likely on the way. The court ordered the state to respond urgently to petitioners’ requests for immediate release from their incarceration at San Quentin State Prison, filed between June and August. 

The petitions come after a fateful decision by CDCR in late May to transfer 121 people from California Institution for Men (CIM) – then the state prison with the highest COVID-19 rate in California – to San Quentin. There were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at San Quentin before the transfer. As a result of the transfer, over 2,000 people living and working at San Quentin have tested positive for COVID-19 and 26 have died – making it the worst outbreak in the country. The crisis has led to severe staffing shortages, near total and indefinite lockdown, and a state of extreme fear for those trapped inside and their families. Currently, the COVID-19 infection rate in San Quentin is 68.5% while California’s infection rate is 1%. 

The cases were filed individually as “habeas corpus” petitions – an emergency motion asking the courts to determine whether a person’s incarceration is lawful. The petitions allege violation of the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment” and request immediate release to escape the deadly conditions caused by CDCR. The cases were subsequently joined together and will be heard by Superior Court Judge Howard. Attorneys for petitioners include Charles Carbone, the Marin County Public Defender, the San Francisco Public Defender, and the Alameda County Public Defender.

Filings in the case are available here and the exhibits can be accessed here.


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