Says Crowded Conditions During Pandemic Is Cruel, Unusual Punishment
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The First District Court of Appeal yesterday issued a sweeping order requiring that San Quentin reduce its prison population, now at 3,109, to “no more than 1,775 inmates,” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, declaring that the endangering of prisoners by virtue of close confinement amounts to a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The court ordered that that the petitioner, serving a life sentence for murder, be moved to a safer facility, and also mandated broader relief—though acknowledging that there is no authority for granting habeas corpus relief not only to a petitioner, but to those who are similarly situated.
Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline of Div. Two wrote the opinion, which declares:
“To be clear: We do not order the release of petitioner or any other inmate. We order respondents to remove petitioner from San Quentin…, and to immediately commence the design and implementation of plans to expedite release or transfer of the number of inmates necessary to reduce San Quentin’s population to 50 percent of its June 2020 population.”
The 50 percent reduction was recommended by health experts in a June 15, 2020 “urgent memo.”
The petitioner is Ivan Von Staich, who was convicted in 1986 of second degree murder with use of a firearm and attempted murder. He is imperiled, he said in his petition, because he is 64 years of age, suffers from respiratory problems, and has tested positive for the virus.
Von Staich set forth in a declaration that he was placed, along with a 65-year-old man who had also tested positive, in a cell which was “so small that you can touch the walls with your hands.”
Although the petitioner has recovered from the disease, he argued that he remains vulnerable because protection from infection at the prison is “impossible” inasmuch as “there is no opportunity to engage in social distancing.”
“[T]there have so far been more than 2,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among San Quentin inmates and 28 deaths. There have also been 298 confirmed cases among San Quentin staff, including one death. The infection and mortality rates at San Quentin are higher than the rate for prisons statewide, and considerably higher than the rates for California’s general population.”
“By all accounts, the COVID-19 outbreak at San Quentin has been the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history. And there is no assurance San Quentin will not experience a second or even third spike, as it did during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, which according to the resident prison physician of San Quentin at the time consisted of three distinct epidemics, in April, October, and November of that year.”
The presiding justice declared:
“In a life-threatening emergency like that posed by COVID-19 in San Quentin, respondents have the power to remove all persons incarcerated at San Quentin, not just inmates convicted only of nonviolent offenses.” He pointed to Government Code §8658 which provides:
“In any case in which an emergency endangering the lives of inmates of a state . . . correctional institution has occurred or is imminent, the person in charge of the institution may remove the inmates from the institution. He shall, if possible, remove them to a safe and convenient place and there confine them as long as may be necessary to avoid the danger, or, if that is not possible, may release them. Such person shall not be held liable, civilly or criminally, for acts performed pursuant to this section.”
That section, he observed, authorizes not only an outright release from prison, but also the moving of inmates to other facilities.
The opinion mandates that Von Staich be transferred “immediately” to a Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) facility “that is able to provide the necessary physical distancing and other measures to protect against COVID-19, or to another placement meeting these criteria.” It further provides:
“Respondents are also ordered to expedite the removal from San Quentin State Prison—by means of release on parole or transfer to another correctional facility administered or monitored by CDCR—of the number of prisoners necessary to reduce the population of that prison to no more than 1,775 inmates. If necessary to achieve this reduction, respondents are ordered to revise their expedited release programs to include inmates over age 60, who have served at least 25 years of their sentences and are eligible for parole, such as life prisoners eligible for parole and second or third strike prisoners, even if such prisoners are serving a sentence for a violent offense. Respondents shall ensure that inmates fitting the specifications of the Elderly Parole Program receive the “special consideration” for release prescribed by that program.”
Kline said the opinion will be final in 15 days.
The case is In re Von Staich, A160122.
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