On May 19, 2021, testimony began in an evidentiary hearing against San Quentin State Prison and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for their mishandling of a disastrous transfer of COVID-19-infected persons from the California Institution for Men to San Quentin, resulting in a massive outbreak and 29 deaths in the summer of 2020. The cases come to court as individual “habeas corpus” petitions – emergency filings alleging unlawful incarceration under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Over 300 petitions were joined together for the evidentiary stage of the proceeding.
To learn more about this habeas case – including a chronological FAQ, court filings, and the link to watch the proceedings, please visit SFPublicDefender.org/habeas.
The Davis Vanguard is publishing articles on the daily testimony. We’ll continue update this page, but here the headlines and some telling excerpts. Click through to the full articles.
After being exposed to unsafe conditions for a few hours, Mattox and the other 23 transfers were escorted to their buses that would take them on an 11 hour ride to San Quentin...
Upon arrival at San Quentin, Mattox recalled being uncuffed and put in a cell with three to four other people.
Two days after Mattox arrived he was finally tested for COVID, but was informed four to five days after taking the tests. After he had been tested he was put in an isolation cell. He described the unsanitary conditions of the cell and informed the court of the carelessness of the officers in maintaining cleanliness. He recalled that the cell was “filthy and an officer took water with bleach and doused the walls and mattress and left without giving me a towel to wipe up.
The witness began crying as he explained that when the medical staff came by, his friend was not responding. The witness began to yell at the staff that he was not breathing.
When they returned with more medical support, they dragged his friend out by his feet and started to do CPR for 55 minutes.
The witness, continuing to cry, mentioned that he “watched the entire time this was happening with a mirror. “It felt like trash…they treated him like cattle…they didn’t treat him like a human.
Dr. Matt Willis was brought in to testify about the events that lead to the outbreak in San Quentin and his interactions with the prison. He is the Public Health Officer for the Department of Health and Human Services for Marin County.
During the outset of the pandemic, Dr. Willis informed the court that he had contact with all local hospitals and medical care providers in Marin County, including San Quentin State prison, through the Healthcare Preparedness Program (HPP).
He recalled that all medical care providers were asked to submit a plan of how they would respond to increases of COVID-19. While medical care providers complied with the request, San Quentin prison did not offer a plan nor were they meeting deadlines set forth by the HPP.
Pachynski [Chief Medical Executive for San Quentin State Prison] also testified that the time between an inmate being tested for COVID-19 and receiving their test results could be shockingly long. Due to widespread limited testing capacity during the summer, resulted could take 5-6 days to be received by San Quentin physicians. At that point, the inmate would receive a letter via the prison mail service, adding another few days, and possibly a week, to the response time from the test.
The prison was also offered rapid testing for covid-19 by Fyodor Urnov, a researcher at UC Berkeley, in April 2020. Despite the need for testing within the prison population, administrators declined the offer, which would have allowed them to receive results within 36 hours.
No inquiries were made about whether the inmates being transferred from CIM had been tested recently, their most recent tests having been three to four weeks prior to the transfer date. Nor had anyone inquired into the manner of social distancing that the prisoners had utilized during the transfer.
Prior to the transfer it was believed the inmates would be housed in the Adjustment Center, a separate building with solid doors, where they could be quarantined.
According to [Warden] Bloomfield solid doors, as opposed to bars through which the virus may travel, are necessary to maintain isolation. The Adjustment Center is the only unit at San Quentin, aside from the hospital, that meets this criteria.
However, the building proved to only hold 100 people safely and was too small to house the incoming population. At the last minute, officials at San Quentin decided to use the Adjustment Center to house inmates who were symptomatic, and hold the new inmates in their own units in the main facility.
The expectation was that the inmates would be quarantined in their units for 14 days and then released to the main prison population. This did not come to pass, said the warden.
On the day of the transfer, two inmates determined to be symptomatic by nursing staff were sent to isolation in the Adjustment Center, while the rest were ordered to units in the main facility.
Michael Burroughs is an incarcerated person who works as a main chef at San Quentin, preparing meals and maintaining the kitchen area. He revealed that, despite feeling sick in late June of last year, he was ordered to continue working as a chef until July 5 although he was handling food while infected.
When asked whether or not he had the right to refuse working in the kitchens, Burroughs answered, “No, I don’t have the ability to refuse to work at the kitchens” and that if he does refuse he would get penalized and written up for a rules violation report.
When [Mr. Johnson] was brought back from the hospital he was taken to the adjustment center, he disclosed that he saw many guards moving around unmasked, even in the area where he was quarantining.
“San Quentin expects us to hold ourselves fully accountable for our actions and I think it would be quite reassuring to know that it holds itself to the exact same standard of accountability,” he said. “They don’t practice what they preach, I don’t see that happening here at all, that’s why I’m here.”
The health and safety protocols of the prison remained in the spotlight as the two parties look to establish the conditions in place during the transfer of inmates from the California Institute for Men in Chino, California.
The witnesses of the day primarily discussed the employee perspective of the outbreak, detailing conduct violations such as a notorious photo of a group of employees and supervisors posing maskless on site during the pandemic.
There is not a single staff cohort who work in the adjustment center. According to Stanton, “They are able to work other places, as well as overtime…We call them swaps, but they work other people’s shifts and they would in turn work their shifts at a later date.”
He further acknowledged that an officer could work in the unit with COVID-19 positive patients one day and then in a different unit the next day.
San Quentin experienced a five-day delay in PCR test results during the time of the COVID outbreak.
Attorney Nathaniel Brown, who cross-examined Yumang [Registered Nurse at San Quentin], asked her if this elongated delay in test results could both make it difficult to manage an outbreak and result in another positive testing person exposing others within that time. Yumang answered yes.
According to Dr. Klausner [Professor at the USC Department of Medicine, and a member of the Center of Disease Control], close contact that results in an infection “means being within six feet for more than 15 minutes within a 24 hour period.” Based on prior testimony by San Quentin inmates, “we know some of them were exposed for longer than 15 minutes in a 24-hour period to inmates testing positive.”
Pederson explained that if staff displayed symptoms of COVID-19, they were sent home. Further, he disclosed, staff that were sent home were paid for the day; however, they were not paid for the subsequent days that they were home with symptoms. In her questioning, Reeves implied that this lack of pay would motivate staff to lie about their symptoms and return to work, perpetuating the spread of the virus.
However, when it came to the urgent recommendation for San Quentin reduce its prison population to 50 percent, the facility instead looked into implementing alternative housing units to address overcrowding instead. Brockenborough confirmed that in July of last year, there were no plans from the San Quentin facility to reduce its prison population.
The opening brief for this case is scheduled for July 7 with a reply on August 18. No dates were set for the final decision.