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Blasting 'Deliberate Indifference' to Inmate Health, California Court Orders San Quentin Prison to Reduce Population by Half

The ruling called the Covid-19 outbreak at the notorious lockup "the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history."

Aerial view of the Covid-19 emergency care facility erected at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The new emergency care facility that was erected to treat inmates infected with Covid-19 at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California, seen from the air on July 8, 2020. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) 

Accusing California prison officials of "deliberate indifference" to inmate health, a state appeals court on Wednesday ordered San Quentin State Prison to release or transfer roughly half its population. 

The First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco issued a ruling (pdf) directing San Quentin to reduce its inmate population from around 2,900 to 1,775. The court called the prison's Covid-19 outbreak "the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history."

The ruling said San Quentin can either release the prisoners or transfer them to other detention centers that can "provide the necessary physical distancing" and other measures needed to control the spread of coronavirus. 

At least 2,200 inmates—or around 75% of the population—at California's oldest and most notorious prison were infected with the coronavirus at the height of the outbreak in July. Twenty-eight prisoners have died. More than 300 correctional officers and staff were also infected with Covid-19, with one guard dying in August. According to officials, there is currently only one active coronavirus case in the facility. However, the court's ruling warned that "there is no assurance San Quentin will not experience a second or even third spike" in Covid-19. 

In June, outside advisers recommended (pdf) reducing San Quentin's population by half, citing "the unique architecture and age" of the prison—which opened in 1852—and its "exceedingly poor ventilation, extraordinarily close living quarters, and inadequate sanitation" as risk factors for coronavirus transmission. Prison officials, however, did not heed the advisers' recommendations. 

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The appeals court called officials' failure to release the prisoners "morally indefensible and constitutionally untenable."

Danica Rodarmel, state policy director for the San Francisco Public Defender, called the ruling "a monumental decision."

"It is the right decision and it supports our contention that people in San Quentin's right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment has been violated since the start of the outbreak," Rodarmel told the Associated Press

San Quentin is home to California's death row, where more than 700 condemned prisoners live. The advocacy group Death Penalty Information Center noted in August that Covid-19 has killed more death row prisoners in California than the state has executed in the past 27 years. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed dozens of lawsuits demanding the release of the most vulnerable prisoners, who some critics say are being given what could amount to an extrajudicial death sentence.

The ACLU and partners on Wednesday sued several federal agencies in an effort to compel them to disclose records detailing how the government handled the coronavirus pandemic in prisons across the nation. 

A spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said Wednesday that the agency "respectfully disagree[s] with the court's determination" and that state prison officials are deciding whether they will appeal the ruling. 

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