Late last week I received the second joint request by the parties in In re Von Staich to reschedule the deadline for briefs. The parties cite workload and other pressing cases. Given the inscrutability of the California Supreme Court decision, I bet no one knows exactly what to write; remember, the Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeal with instructions to “reconsider the cause in light of People v. Duvall“–in other words, to reconsider whether an evidentiary hearing is necessary.
But what does an evidentiary hearing even mean at this point? Litigation thrives on dissecting the wrongs of the past, based on an unchanging (if disputed) set of facts. COVID-19 is anything but unchanging. When we held our press conference outside the main gate at Quentin, and when I filed our amicus brief in Von Staich in August, San Quentin was amidst the most serious outbreak in the country; UCSF doctor Peter Chin-Hong referred to San Quentin as “the Chernobyl of COVID-19.” Even in September, when oral argument took place, Justice Kline understandably bristled at CDCR representative Kathleen Walton’s argument that there was “no need to act hastily.”
And now? Look at this morning’s snapshot from the CDCR infection ticker. Every single prison has cases, but not all places are alike. San Quentin has only four active cases; like a few of the prisons who had horrific outbreaks just a couple of months ago, it is not a hot spot. By contrast, some of the places that were COVID-free for months are now seriously afflicted. Disturbingly, one such place is CMF in Vacaville, which is a medical facility with large numbers of aging and infirm people and was one of the initial vaccination grounds. This just came in from one of the activists helping people at CMF:
On December 11, the number of positive cases at CMF was 2. On December 12, the prison went under lockdown. Within five days, the number of cases had risen to 58. As of last night (1-17), the number of positive cases on the tracker was 260 (about 13% of the population). At the height of the outbreak, the total was 463. In all, 520 people (about 26% of the population) have been infected, and seven have died. Also, there was not a single drop in numbers until 1-6, 25 days into the outbreak, with the numbers going up as much as 50 or 58 in a single day on a few occasions.
Before the outbreak began, reports from incarcerated people and their loved ones of correctional officers refusing to wear masks and the incarcerated population not having access to cleaning supplies had persisted for months. Additionally, some incarcerated people have said that they had not been given new masks when their old ones wore out to the point of being ineffective–until 12-24, that is (a whole 12 days into the outbreak), when new masks were finally distributed.
Since the outbreak, we have heard horrific accounts of conditions inside. D- dorm at CMF is currently being used as a triage / Covid positive dorm. The dorm was formerly used to house the dogs that were part of the Paws for Life program. The dogs were removed shortly after the start of the pandemic, and the dorm was not cleaned prior to being used for quarantine. It is filthy. There are no porters available to clean because they are all sick with covid. Staff are not stepping up to help clean, and the few incarcerated who are well enough to clean are not being given adequate cleaning supplies. Laundry is not being picked up. The strain of covid that is moving through CMF is causing severe diarrhea. Several people have soiled themselves and do not have access to clean clothes. Each person is only being given one roll of toilet paper per week. This is nowhere near enough for those experiencing diarrhea.
Nurses are refusing to go bed to bed to check on people. They expect sick and bedridden people to line up in the middle of the dorm to have their vitals taken, with the result that the people too ill to get up are being missed completely and not getting help when their conditions become life-threatening. Around the end of December, a man fainted and defecated on himself. When medical staff refused to respond to calls for help, other incarcerated people in the dorm, who were themselves ill, cleaned him up and carried him to his bed before he was finally taken to an outside hospital. In a similar incident, a man fainted and was refused medical attention for hours before finally being carried out on a stretcher. Staff are hesitant to call ambulances because they are concerned about how it will look with regard to the Plata litigation. Correctional officers tell the nurses to call for ambulances, and the nurses ignore them. They would rather refuse to get people the proper medical attention they need than make it look like they’re incapable of caring for them at the prison.
The incarcerated who are too sick to cook for themselves are still being given raw vegetables like onions, on top of the already deplorable food situation. Food amounts are proportionally small, not enough for an adult. Some correctional officers are not wearing masks or refusing to wear them properly. Many refuse to wear gloves. Some are moving around from positive to negative units, socializing with other COs. Many believe this is intentional for the purpose of spreading the virus around the prison. People who are sick are not being given access to over-the-counter medications, and only a select few are being given antibody treatments. The incarcerated have been moved from one area to another in hopes of containing the virus. This, apart from being completely ineffective, has presented additional problems of loss of property.
Access to phones has been restricted drastically, so families are not in contact with their loved ones to know what is going on. The hearing impaired are further restricted, as they are barred from the specially-equipped phones they would normally use. In fact, phone use was completely suspended on 12-21 in part of the prison on the grounds that this was the cause of the spread. Quite apart from being untrue, this had the effect of further restricting people\’s access to their loved ones, which was severely detrimental to the mental health of all involved until the restrictions were modified. The disabled population at CMF, who are supposed to have assistance with various daily living tasks from other incarcerated people (people who are employed to do this specific job as their work assignment), have seen this help severely hampered by the outbreak. People with disabilities are required to be accommodated under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and no alternative accommodations for the disabled at CMF have been offered.
Many of the population at CMF are over 60, and many have medical conditions such as diabetes, AIDS, and high blood pressure–all of which put them at higher risk of serious complications if they were to be infected with covid. Some are already being held in a hospice unit due to terminal illnesses. Some have covid risk scores, as defined by California Correctional Health Care Services (the office responsible for healthcare in prisons after conditions were declared unconstitutional), as high as 16. Hospitals in some parts of California have already begun to turn away the incarcerated, and many are talking of rationing medical care. If they do, they will deny treatment to those they deem to be less likely to survive a covid diagnosis. This would be catastrophic for anyone from CMF in need of hospitalization. There is a dorm at CMF that holds 21 wheelchair users. There are not enough wheelchair-accessible single cells to facilitate the quarantine of these people, resulting in the spread of the virus through this dorm. Poor ventilation within the prison is also a facilitator of the spread.
I don’t know how the parties in Von Staich are going to pretzel their arguments around the shifting map of COVID, and because this is a blog, not a courtroom, I’ll be brutally honest. The vagueness of the Von Staich remedy (strongly urging CDCR to release aging and infirm people, but explicitly stating that transfers are a viable path to compliance too), coupled with the moral paralysis at the governor’s office and at CDCR, led to a situation in which the “relief” that CDCR was willing to provide–i.e., transfers from Quentin to other prisons–was worse than no relief at all. People wrote to me from inside saying that programs they deeply cared about, which are not offered anywhere else in the system, were going to be denied to them; others wrote and said that there was historical bad blood between Quentin people and people in other prisons, compounded with its identification at the time as “the COVID prison” and that they were worried of retaliation if transferred elsewhere. In the Marin consolidated cases, the AG representative, Denise Yates, twisted this to argue that “petitioners can’t have it both ways.” I lost sleep wondering if our big win in Von Staich hadn’t made matters worse for everyone (Von Staich himself was released from CDCR, and immediately found himself ensnared in the federal court system via an ancient Bureau of Prisons hold from before his incarceration in 1981, which in itself raises serious questions.) We’re seeing the Achilles heel of trying to litigate this horror via state courts, which have jurisdiction only over a particular prison based on district.
Are we faring better in federal courts? The federal system has been the classic venue for prison litigation, but its ability to do something has been seriously curbed by the PLRA. As Margo Schlanger shows in her 2015 article, case filings took a serious nose dive after the PLRA’s enactment in 1996 and never bounced back, while prison and jail populations (and, subsequently, problems and grievances) continued to grow.
We are seeing the fruit of this problem in Plata v. Newsom. In my recap of the last case management conference I quoted Judge Tigar, who said, “if I could let people out I would do it today,” but “my view of the law is that I’m not allowed to do that.” I was not entirely clear, during the conference, how much of this is Tigar’s analysis of the extent to which his hands are formally tied by the PLRA–he has shed tears more than once over the COVID prison crisis, including at its initial statement–and how much of this is his judicial psychology of catching flies with honey by bringing CDCR and the CCPOA on board. And now we learn, per my source at CMF, that the need to perform compliance for the purposes of the Plata litigation is obstructing, in horrible ways, actual compliance that can save lives.
Where does this leave us? When dealing with bad faith and obfuscatory antics, there’s very little point looking for justice in places that champion gentleness and restraint. Vague remedies that allow transfers, rather than just releases, invariably and immediately lead CDCR to embrace transfers as their go-to strategy, and then use the ensuing horrors to come to court, shrug their collective shoulders, and say, “but we thought that’s what you wanted!” Petitioning and cajoling the governor, unsurprisingly, is not nearly as effective as ordering him to release people would be. Documentation amasses, judges and parties complain about caseloads and information overloads, and in the meantime people continue to die.
Speaking of the ultimate horror, I neglected to report on the first wrongful death suit filed against CDCR, on behalf of the survivors of Daniel Ruiz who died at San Quentin. Here is the full claim:
The claim articulates the facts of the San Quentin disaster as we already know them, with an extra wrinkle of cruelty: “Due to the policies promulgated and enforced by [CDCR, the hospital and medical personnel] were prohibited from informing [Ruiz’s] family. . . that he was there, or gravely ill, or dying from COVID-19. Respondents denied Daniel any contact with his family for many days, until shortly before he died.”
I initially thought that the heartlessness and trickery of the AG’s office was an effort to preempt an avalanche of wrongful death lawsuits and the prospect of high amounts in damages. But securing a law firm that can litigate a case like this, even on behalf of one person, is a tall order, especially for people who are impoverished already and trying to survive in the pandemic. The result is that even this path makes it a steep uphill battle to seek redress or make any changes.
The only thing that can make a dent in this crisis is an initiative to release aging, infirm people en masse. But the good will necessary for this is not forthcoming. The very people nationally hailed as heroes of the anti-Trump resistance have consistently defended untold villainy on the local stage, resulting in horrific sickness and death. This is something to ponder as we dance around the Trump Administration’s funeral pyre tomorrow.