While I was focus on witness prep for the #SmithfieldTrial, my friend Allison Villegas shared a piece of good news: on Thursday, the Attorney General filed a notice that he is dropping the state’s appeal in In re Hall et al.
To recap what happened: Since the outbreak at San Quentin erupted in late May/early June 2020, hundreds of people incarcerated there litigated, asking to be delivered from the environment of infection, hospitalization, fear, misinformation, neglect, ineptitude, and death that characterized the prison’s response to the outbreak. Our litigation led to the landmark decision In re Von Staich, in which the Court of Appeal ordered that the population at Quentin be reduced to 50% of design capacity (as the physician group AMEND SF recommended.) We later had a reversal of fortune at the hands of the CA Supreme Court, which ordered an evidentiary hearing (a year after the fact, but waves of COVID continued to ravage the prison.) At the evidentiary hearing, things looked even bleaker for the states, as witnesses testifying from Quentin via Zoom revealed layer after layer of what they suffered at the hands of nincompoops, COVID denialists, and a prison administrative system in which the custodial and the medical sides have no understanding of each other. In October 2021, Judge Howard issued a tentative ruling in which he accepted every claim we made about the horrific and unconstitutional abuse that the men were subjected to, and wrote that the Eighth Amendment was violated in no uncertain terms, but… did not give us any relief, because presumably the whole case was “moot” as “the vaccine changed the game for COVID-19 at San Quentin. With a nearly 80 percent inmate vaccination rate, COVID-19 has all but disappeared from inside the prison. Although COVID-19 remains a risk within San Quentin, it appears at present no more than, and perhaps even less than, the risk faced by the community at large.”
This was, in itself, outrageous, and not exactly true even when it was written: the Delta variant began making its way through the prison. Shortly after, we saw the shortsightedness of not getting relief when Omicron swept through the system. To add insult to injury, while the petitioners chose not to appeal the decision (a choice I still feel quite crummy about), a surprising thing happened: the state appealed, even though we actually received no relief!
Back in summer 2020, Rob Bonta, then an Assemblymember from San Mateo, stood shoulder to shoulder with us at the press conference, speaking so movingly about the preventable disaster at Quentin that he was quoted in the guardian. But by March 2021, when he was appointed Attorney General, he apparently forgot all this. At the time, thinking the same person would keep the same conscience, I made a list of all the things he could do to help, and I confess that “refraining from appealing a decision in which the prisoners got no relief only to save the honor of CDCR at the taxpayers’ expense” was not something that even occurred to me needed to be said! But lo and behold, the AG office did appeal the ruling, God knows why, which prompted me to ask what I still think is an excellent question: What, actually, is the Attorney General’s job? Does the Attorney General work for all Californians all the time–including Californians behind bars–or does he become a hired gun when he’s in litigation? Does it make sense to posture as a science-forward, vaccine-forward AG when the time comes to require vaccines in schools, while at the same time becoming the Tom Hagan of the prison guard’s union when they don’t want a vaccine mandate because they are “his client”?
Thursday’s decision to pull this tasteless, tone-deft, and frankly, disgusting appeal, comes two years too late, when it doesn’t make news or waves, but it at least gives back a modicum of decency to an office that showed absolutely none throughout this entire crisis. We write extensively about the AG’s role in curtailing releases and supporting COVID denialists in uniform in Chapter 7 of #FESTER.