Finally, I have a moment away from grading to provide some updates, and the news from CDCR are not good. The last 14 days have seen 104 cases, including 80 that constitute a major outbreak in Solano. CCC and Mule Creek also have new outbreaks, so far fewer than ten cases each. In the last week, CDCR’s population as a whole saw a net increase of 238, indicating a continuation of the trickle in from jails.

This is worrisome, and a grim reminder that the reality painted by the AG representatives at the Quentin hearing–namely, that the worst is over and everything is hunky-dory–could change at any minute. For detailed summaries of each day of the hearing, I highly recommend the Davis Vanguard coverage:

Day 1 – testimonies by incarcerated witnesses, including John Mattox, one of the CIM transferees

Day 2 – Matthew Willis, health chief of Marin County, testifies about being rebuffed when he asked to isolate and test transferees

Day 3 – testimonies by Drs. Bick and Pachynski

Day 4 – testimony of warden Broomfield

Day 5 – continued testimony by Broomfield and testimony of expert witness Dr. Morris

Day 6 – testimony by incarcerated witnesses Burroughs and Crawford and by psychiatrist Dr. Kupers

Day 7 – testimony by CDCR employees, more incarcerated witnesses, expert witness Dr. Parker, and Channing Sheets of CAL/OSHA

Day 8 – testimony of CDCR administrators Bishop and Avila

Day 9 – testimony of four prison officials

Day 10 – testimony of more prison officials

Day 11 – final testimony day

The testimony has now concluded. Petitioners’ written brief is due July 7 and Respondents’ brief is due on August 4; replies are due on August 18. Judge Howard was undecided yesterday on whether he will give a tentative written decision or final decision. The Judge was mindful that this could push the timeline for the case into September; the complication is that there are 400 other petitioners waiting patiently because a response to their petition has been continued since the decision in the hundreds of cases related to this evidentiary hearing could affect them. 

Yesterday I participated in an event organized by the Vanguard, featuring Danica Rodarmel and Adamu Chan, which you can catch up on here:

Beyond the things we discussed at the event, I’ve had a few general observations about how things are going so far.

The first and perhaps most important has to do with the purpose of all this. At the event, all three of us mentioned accountability as an important goal. But what can accountability even mean given the constantly changing landscape of the disease? The population in the prison has decreased since the advent of the pandemic, and any remedy phrased as “population reduction” would be interpreted by CDCR as requiring transfers, which would be disastrous to the Quentin population because of the paucity of programming elsewhere and because of the possibility of infections elsewhere (such as we see now in Solano.) Other remedies (including administrative injunctions and monetary damages) are outside the scope of a habeas hearing (remember, this is not a class action–it’s hundreds of individual cases that have been consolidated.)

Relatedly, the AG’s line has been all along that habeas relief cannot be granted on the basis of past circumstances, and it’s not a ridiculous argument. I’ve said before that these hearings, as well as the Plata hearing, are proof that courts are an imperfect mechanism for remedying an ongoing, ever-changing situation. The immediate relief needs to come from the people directly in charge of the welfare of the prison population, and when these folks are far more interested in preserving themselves and their jobs than in keeping the people in their care alive and well, we’re stuck in a quagmire.

The biggest disappointment in all this is that AG Rob Bonta–who, just months before his appointment, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me in front of the San Quentin gates denouncing prison administration and calling for releases–is allowing his employees to fight against doing the right thing. In July, Bonta said at the press conference: “We are in the middle of a humanitarian crisis that was created and wholly avoidable; we need to act with urgency fueled by compassion; we missed the opportunity to prevent, so now we have to make things right.” Now, he’s apparently comfortable presenting a legal argument that the crisis was unavoidable, that everything that needed doing was, in fact, done, and that the incarcerated people themselves have compounded their own situation. He also does not seem to stop his employees from the unnecessarily humiliating practice of asking incarcerated witnesses for their inmate numbers at the beginning of cross examination (are they afraid we’ll confuse them with each other? Or do they perhaps need a reminder that they are incarcerated, in case they forgot?). Good luck trying, again, to explain to your East Coast friends how yet another hero of the progressive resistance turns out to be a villain on the local level.

Another theme that has emerged, for me, is the mess that Plata created. I’ve already published about this here and here and here, but it was only at the hearing that I realized one more problem that emerged from the Plata/Coleman line of cases: the appointment of the receiver to oversee health services have created two separate masters, for healthcare and custody respectively, whose chain of command seems to be unclear even to the warden himself. They have had more than a decade to figure out who trumps whom and who makes the final decisions, and it looks like there is basic confusion even in figuring out which decisions count as medical and which as custodial. For a hierarchical law enforcement institution that has to feed, clothe, and shelter tens of thousands of people, this is an enormous problem, and it’s inconceivable that they have been unaware of it until now.

Finally, we said yesterday that just memorializing what happened is important, and it is, but the judicial order not to film or record is thwarting that goal. I’ve recently participated in a special workshop about mass atrocity trials, in which several of the presentations involved efforts to make, for example, holocaust trials into educational tools through virtual reality, simulations, and testimony broadcasts. The strength of this hearing, particularly as it is broadcast via Zoom, is that incarcerated people can tell their story, in their own words, on your computer screen, humanizing them to people who might only think of them in the abstract and facilitating access to what happens behind bars. But almost no one can afford to watch a full day of hearing (hence the important service by the Vanguard), and with no filming/recording permissions, news outlets cannot broadcast the highlights in the evenings. This has strengthened my conviction that our book in progress #FESTER is an important endeavor, which I hope will be joined by other works bearing witness to what happened here.

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