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California prison officials on hook for Covid outbreak at San Quentin

A federal judge found state prison officials are not entitled to immunity from claims that they recklessly exposed San Quentin inmates to Covid-19.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — California prison officials must face claims that they callously disregarded inmates’ constitutional rights by orchestrating a prison transfer that caused a deadly Covid-19 outbreak at San Quentin.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick III refused to dismiss a spate of lawsuits from inmates contending that state prison medical staff and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation executives caused a massive Covid-19 outbreak at San Quentin when they pushed through a transfer of 122 medically vulnerable inmates from the California Institution for Men in Chino.

The transfer was supposed to protect these inmates from the outbreak at the Chino prison, according to a report by the state’s inspector general. Some of the transferees were already experiencing Covid symptoms but were loaded on the bus and shipped north anyway.

Prior to their arrival on May 30, 2020, San Quentin had no positive Covid cases. But immediately after the transfer, 15 of the transferred prisoners tested positive. Within three weeks, 1,135 San Quentin inmates had been infected. The number of infected grew to 2,237 prisoners and 277 staff members by the end of August. One staff member and 28 prisoners died.

Orrick found the officials’ handling of the transfer and the failure to quarantine infected transferees exposed San Quentin inmates to a heightened risk of contracting Covid-19 and this sufficiently constituted a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

“The plausibility of plaintiffs’ claims that defendants were deliberately indifferent to the risk of exposure associated with the transfer, the transfer protocol, and the containment strategy or lack thereof upon receiving the prisoners at San Quentin, is bolstered by the allegations contained in the incorporated OIG report,” the judge wrote in a ruling that covers eight federal lawsuits filed in the Northern District.

At a hearing in July 2020, California lawmakers blasted the transfer and subsequent deadly virus outbreak as the "worst prison health screw-up in state history." The subsequent report by the inspector general found the CDCR and California Correctional Health Care Services had caused a public health disaster.

Retired CDCR secretary Ralph Diaz, former San Quentin warden Ronald Davis, current acting warden Ronald Broomfield, Mona Houston — the warden at Chino from August 2019 through Jan. 4, 2021, and a number of head physicians and health care “executive officers” at both Chino and San Quentin are among the defendants named in the inmates’ lawsuits.

The prison officials claimed immunity in their failure to take effective countermeasures under the Public Readiness And Emergency Preparedness Act — a law enacted in 2005 to shield public officials from liability during a public health emergency. The U.S. Health and Human Services secretary issued an update declaration March 2020 extending liability immunity to certain individuals and state agencies in response to the pandemic, and the officials claimed they "had the authority to develop policies and supervise the administration of Covid-19 testing, screening, and the distribution of PPE, all of which are covered countermeasures under the law.”

Orrick found the PREP Act doesn't cover a prisoner transfer, and that the law doesn’t confer immunity to all Covid-related decisions in a prison setting.

"Prisons are not countermeasure programs, nor are they locations for the purpose of distributing countermeasures. While the act may confer immunity for the administration of countermeasures within a prison context, it does not serve to convert all prison operations into countermeasure programs or locations such that any Covid-related conduct or decisions made within that context are immune,” he wrote, adding, “Plaintiffs generally allege that defendants put them at increased risk of contracting Covid by transferring prisoners from CIM to SQSP, failing to implement appropriate testing and distancing before and during the transfer, and failing to implement appropriate quarantine measures after the transfer. Those allegations are plausible. Defendants’ arguments that the PREP Act confers immunity to all of those claims fail.”

The judge also found that each of the named officials participated in the decision to go forward with the transfer in a way that increased the inmates’ Covid risk, writing, “At the motion to dismiss stage, I cannot agree that defendants were not on notice that their conduct might violate the Constitution.”

Orrick said the defendants had “fair warning” given the law at the time that exposing inmates to a greater risk of contracting a communicable disease is unconstitutional.

CDCR spokesperson Dana Simas said the department is reviewing the ruling to determine next steps.

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