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Crime California ordered to halve San Quentin population after showing 'deliberate indifference,' court says

21:05  22 october  2020
21:05  22 october  2020 Source:   politico.com

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OAKLAND, Calif. — A state appellate court has ordered San Quentin State Prison to halve its inmate population, which would require transferring or releasing some 1,700 inmates.

a group of people standing next to a fence: General population inmates walk in a line at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. © AP Photo/Eric Risberg General population inmates walk in a line at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif.

The ruling from the state's First Court of Appeals sends a clear message that officials overseeing San Quentin have not done enough to protect inmates from the coronavirus after a summer outbreak. "We agree that respondents — the Warden and CDCR — have acted with deliberate indifference and relief is warranted," the court said in its opinion.

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The court ordered officials to reduce the prison’s population to 50 percent of where it stood in June — a figure recommended by a team of experts after they investigated viral spread that has already killed dozens and sickened hundreds at San Quentin. The inmate reduction could be achieved through a combination of transfers and early releases, the court said.

A California Department of Corrections representative said in an emailed statement that "we respectfully disagree with the court’s determination, as CDCR has taken extensive actions to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic."

"Since March, the department has released more than 21,000 persons, resulting in the lowest prison population in decades. Additionally, we have implemented response and mitigation efforts across the system," the statement said. "As of today, CDCR’s COVID-19 cases are the lowest they have been since May (493 cases reported today, and over 14,000 resolved), with San Quentin recording only one new case among the incarcerated population in nearly a month."

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What it means: This has immediate implications for some of the roughly 3,400 inmates incarcerated at San Quentin and the state prison officials who may need to transfer or release many of of them. It also intensifies a broader debate around the balance between public health and public safety in California’s vast carceral system.

The prison houses many inmates convicted of serious, violent offenses: about 30 percent of the prison's inhabitants are serving life sentences.

Situated along the bay in Marin County, San Quentin has the state's only death row, the largest in the nation. Gov. Gavin Newsom last year signed an executive order imposing a moratorium on the death penalty.

The history: Prisons and jails have long loomed as coronavirus hot spots, fueling public health concerns and legal efforts by advocates to compel more inmate releases even after prison officials instituted safeguards like requiring more distancing and mask usage. Newsom ordered officials in July to expedite the release of up to 8,000 lower-level offenders who were nearing the end of their sentences.

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The coronavirus arrived at San Quentin this summer after state prison officials transferred inmates there from another stricken facility, inviting sustained criticism from elected leaders. The ruling echoes those harsh assessments by calling the San Quentin outbreak “the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history,” and the court agreed with a petitioner that the prison’s indifference violates constitutional protections against cruel punishment.

“The Eighth Amendment violation currently existing due to insufficient space for the necessary physical distancing will continue unless and until the population at San Quentin can be reduced to the 50 percent level,” the ruling says.

What comes now? The court laid out some options that San Quentin officials could pursue, such as releasing older inmates who are currently ineligible because they were convicted of violent crimes — a prohibition that the court called wrongheaded given “such inmates’ heightened vulnerability to the virus and reduced risk of dangerousness to the public.”

The court also noted that other facilities in the California prison system could have space to absorb additional inmates.

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