The U.S. Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. While what qualifies usually considered cruel and unusual is debatable, most people would agree that it should include putting prison inmates in a situation where it is practically impossible to avoid getting infected with a potential deadly disease. But that’s exactly what was happening to inmates in San Quentin prison, who were getting infected with the coronavirus at a shocking rate. That’s why an appeals court has ruled that the prison must halve its population through paroles, early releases or transfers.
Covid-19 in San Quentin
While most jails and prisons worked to thin out their population at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, San Quentin officials have so far refused to do so despite overcrowding and massive infection rates. One particular problem is the structure itself, which was originally opened in 1852 and is known for having inadequate sanitation, cramped living quarters and poor ventilation -all of which make the spread of Covid-19 much easier. As if the prison’s basic design wasn’t bad enough, officials botched a transfer in May by neglecting to test prisoners that were sent from a Southern California prison -bringing a number of infected prisoners into the general inmate population.
When infection rates started to rise, outside advisors suggested the prison halve its population, which was over 3,500 at the time. Doing so would help ensure inmates could be housed separately, reduce the spread of the virus, and provide more space for inmates who needed to be quarantined or treated for Covid-19.
Prison officials still refused to increase the number of paroles and transfers like many other prisons across the state did. As a result, the prison became home to one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the country, with 75% of inmates getting infected. Of the 2,200 inmates who were infected, 28 died and nearly 300 employees were infected, with one dying.
Since the peak of the outbreak San Quentin did begin to release some inmates through early and scheduled releases, bringing their current population 2,900.
Is Exposure to Disease Cruel and Unusual Punishment?
The California appeals court sure believed so and while the outbreak has since ended, with only one inmate currently infected, the court has still ruled that the prison must now reduce its population by half, bringing it down to below 1,775. The judges are in agreement that a second outbreak is likely to occur over winter and that the prison administration’s previous “deliberate indifference” to the threat to their prisoners was “morally indefensible and constitutionally untenable.”
So What Does That Mean for Prisoners?
It’s possible this ruling could mean nothing if officials appeal the decision and win in the higher court. State prison officials say they are deciding whether to do this. Assuming they follow the ruling though, it’s hard to say if this will actually result in the release of many prisoners as clearing out the population can be done through parole, early releases or transfers. With so many other prisons making such strides to clear out their population, there is enough vacancy in other prisons that the state could simply transfer half of the inmates from San Quentin without making any releases.
That being said, many are arguing that paroles are the only fair option for inmates though, because a botched prison transfer was to blame for the initial outbreak and prisoners were already victims to cruel and unusual punishment as a result. Attorneys representing over 300 inmates are arguing that their clients should be released early on these grounds. It’s also worth adding that other prisons, while slightly safer, still have a higher rate of infection than the outside world. In fact, studies show those incarcerated have five times the normal rates of infection.
The appeals court specifically suggested the prison considered releasing older inmates who were convicted of violent crimes because they are at such a high risk in this pandemic. Prison officials previously excluded these people from early release considerations due to the fact that they were convicted for violent crimes.
Of the total prison population, it’s worth adding that around 700 inmates in San Quentin are on death row, and therefore cannot be transferred to other prisons because the prison is currently the only location where male death row inmates are held.
The coronavirus is continuing to have a dramatic impact on the justice system and things are changing every month. If you have any question about how Covid-19 might affect your criminal case or the case of a loved one, please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free initial consultation with Peter M. Liss.