Appeals court orders San Quentin to reduce population citing 'deliberate indifference' over virus

An appeals court in San Francisco on Tuesday ordered the population at San Quentin State Prison to be reduced to no more than 1,775 inmates, calling the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s handling of a coronavirus outbreak there amounted to “deliberate indifference.”

As of last week, San Quentin had 2,898 incarcerated people at its facility, meaning it is at 94% capacity, according to CDCR data. 

The failure to take proper safety measures at San Quentin is “morally indefensible and constitutionally untenable,” the First District Court of Appeal wrote in a 45-page document. The court said San Quentin inmates, many of them elderly or medically vulnerable, could be relocated to other prisons or correctional facilities with safer conditions or granted early parole. How exactly this reduction will take place was not exactly spelled out. 

Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline said in the 3-0 ruling that San Quentin has “exceedingly poor ventilation, extraordinarily close living quarters and inadequate sanitation." 

However, it's unlikely that any release or transfer will occur immediately. 

Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which manages California’s 35 prisons, said her agency "respectfully disagreed" with the ruling. She said the department will "determine next steps," which could mean appealing the case to the Supreme Court. 

She said that since March, the department has released more than 21,000 people, "resulting in the lowest prison population in decades," and that the system's COVID-19 cases are the "lowest they have been since May."  Specifically, she said that San Quentin has recorded only one new case in nearly a month. 

Still, prison data shows that the facilities combined are 105% at capacity. And San Quentin has had the most deaths of the 71 people in the prison system who have since died of coronavirus. 

The appeals suit was brought by The First District Appellate Project on behalf of Ivan Von Staich, who was convicted of murder in Southern California in 1983 and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. He is now at San Quentin and was housed with another COVID-positive inmate in a small cell until the court ordered him moved to a quarantine single cell in August.

A state parole board panel found him suitable for release last week, but he remains in prison during further review by the full parole board.

Meanwhile, another group of lawyers had been preparing for hearings next week in Marin County Superior Court to also reduce the numbers at San Quentin andy prevent any more prison transfers. 

These attorneys, several of whom work at the San Francisco Public Defender's Office, filed court papers to immediately set free their plaintiffs and reduce the overall population by half. 

San Francisco Asst. Public Defender Danica Rodarmel, who is state policy director for the office, said her case before Marin County Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Howard is "definitely still proceeding" and is now "even more important in many ways."  

She said that her case has 300 plaintiffs still requesting release and those people's needs still need to be specifically addressed. Her office and colleagues are also arguing against any further transfers between prisons.

"Transfers are not the appropriate remedy in this case," she said. "They were the cause of the deadly outbreak at San Quentin and are not the solution." 

However, at an emergency court meeting on Wednesday, Howard called off next week's San Quentin hearing and asked attorneys to submit briefs regarding the impact appeals court ruling later in November. A new hearing in Rodarmel's case is now scheduled for Nov. 30. 

In a best-case scenario, Rodarmel said everyone seeking release from San Quentin will be granted it, adding that many people have families to live with when they get out. For those who don't, she said, the state should pick up the tab on their re-entry into society. 

The basis of both suits alleged that the prison administration botched a transfer of 121 incarcerated people in May from the California Institution for Men in Chino, where there had been a coronavirus outbreak, to San Quentin, where there had been no cases until the new men arrived.

As a result of the transfer, thousands of people living and working at San Quentin have tested positive for COVID-19 and 28 incarcerated people have died, making it the "worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history." 

Prison rights advocates and lawyers say it's not fair to confine people in these COVID "death traps." 

Rodarmel said that she understands there are those who are wary about letting incarcerated people out of custody. 

"I understand that there are people who have really been harmed by folks and there are concerns with that and we want to make sure that those people are served well too," she said. "The idea of letting people out of prison is something that people find to be really radical. But it's really not. These are human beings being held in ways that are unhealthy and unsafe."

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at or call her at (510) 874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez.