California Court of Appeal Orders 50% Cut of Prisoners at San Quentin
by Hadar Aviram
We won In re Von Staich, the habeas corpus case challenging CDCR’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis at San Quentin. Justice Kline wrote: “We agree that respondents–the Warden and CDCR–have acted with deliberate indifference and relief is warranted.” Here is an analysis of the opinion.
Justice Kline begins by stating the magnitude of the San Quentin catastrophe. Even against the horrific history of disease and contagion in prisons–including three separate spikes of the Spanish Flu in 1918–the San Quentin COVID-19 outbreak is “the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history.”
He then highlights the physicians’ urgent memo (published after they visited San Quentin, at the Receiver’s invitation) recommending a 50% reduction of the prison population. CDCR’s response fell far short of this: between March and August 2020 they achieved a mere 23% reduction, “accomplished, in part, by suspending intake at San Quentin from county jails, which has increased the presence of COVID-19 in those local facilities, and is not likely sustainable.”
Justice Kline then rejects the evasive maneuvers employed by the AG’s office, who tried to play jurisdictional hide-and-seek by claiming that the San Quentin litigation effort was somehow “duplicative” of the federal case Plata v. Newsom. First, the court wrote, San Quentin is a particular, antiquated prison with specific problems, which are not the focus of the federal litigation. Second, these habeas cases are designed to ask for temporary relief, rather than the more systematic remedies sought in Plata. Third, state courts are not limited and bound by the PLRA, as federal courts are. And fourth, which I found inspiring, state courts have the duty and competence to vindicate rights under the California Constitution (which, just like the U.S. Constitution, forbids cruel and unusual punishment–albeit worded slightly differently.)
The court also rejected the AG’s office’s delay tactics, asking that the case be moved back to the Superior Court and/or that an evidentiary hearing be held. As Justice Kline explains, the AG’s declarations that the doctors have it wrong and that a 50% reduction is unnecessary were “conclusions the Attorney General has failed to support with any factual allegations contradicting petitioner’s allegations,” which were based on scientists’ and physicians’ declarations–even with testimony from their own prison physicians. Under these circumstances, “the issue before us is simply whether respondents’ disregard of the experts’ conclusion that a 50 percent population reduction is essential constitutes the ‘deliberate indifference’ necessary to sustain petitioner’s constitutional claim. The issue is one of law, not fact.”
Was CDCR’s response to the risk of infection–of which they concede they were subjectively aware–adequate? They established a central command; installed a tent structure; repurposed the chapel and a furniture factory to care for COVID-19 patients; provided PPE to the population and staff; and released 947 people. At the hearing, the AG representatives claimed that the reduction in case numbers at San Quentin was thanks to these efforts.
The Court of Appeal vehemently disagreed. Relying on the analysis of experts, the Court agreed with us that the reduction in cases was not because of, but despite, CDCR’s behavior. The decision quotes Dr. Beyrer: “Had San Quentin done nothing, the rates of infection there would have been roughly the same.” And, while the steps the prison took to alleviate the risk were commendable, they were insufficient without the population reduction, which they refused to do.