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California Supreme Court Sends San Quentin COVID-19 Case Back to Appeals Court

The Supreme Court of California has sent a case back to the appeals court for another hearing into whether San Quentin prison officials could have done more to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among inmates.

The lower court found on Oct 20 that prison officials acted with “deliberate indifference” to the health and safety of inmates and ordered the prison to reduce its population by 50%.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has since been tapped by President-Elect Joe Biden as his nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services, appealed the ruling to the California Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court is now asking the appeals court to consider whether to hold an evidentiary hearing, including key witness testimony.

The state is “going to find it very, very difficult to find any sort of witness, scientist, doctor, prison doctor, anybody who’s going to say that what went on wasn’t deliberate indifference,” said Hadar Aviram, a law professor at UC Hastings. 

The back and forth court case stems from a petition for release by Ivan Von Staich, 64, who is incarcerated at San Quentin and has respiratory issues. Von Staich argued successfully that the prison would not be able to protect people like him if the population became infected, because there is no way to physically distance from others.

Von Staich’s attorneys disclosed that prison officials ignored a key recommendation by a group of university doctors and epidemiologists who toured San Quentin State Prison in June. The team of health experts, from UCSF and UC Berkeley, urged prison officials to cut the incarcerated population at the prison by half to allow for social distancing and quarantine of those infected.

A spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement that the department has  implemented “robust response and mitigation efforts at San Quentin and across the system, including implementing a robust staff testing plan, averaging more than 130,000 COVID-19 staff tests monthly. Additionally, each institution has dedicated isolation and quarantine space to immediately respond to a positive COVID-19 case among staff or the incarcerated population.” 

According to CDCR, San Quentin has slashed its population by a third since March, from 4,008 to 2,664.

Over 2,100 inmates at San Quentin have contracted the coronavirus, with 28 deaths.

—Marco Siler-Gonzales and Julie Small 

Copyright 2020 KQED