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Bay Area Public Defenders Ask State To Release At-Risk San Quentin Inmates Amid COVID Outbreak

SAN QUENTIN (CBS SF) — Four Bay Area public defenders are collaborating to seek the release of non-violent inmates from San Quentin State Prison, where a coronavirus outbreak has claimed 25 lives, a top lawyer in the San Francisco Public Defender’s office said Wednesday.

Danielle Harris, managing attorney of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, said conditions at San Quentin violate the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“What we’re asking the Marin court to acknowledge is the [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] is at least deliberately indifferent to the lives and well-being of the people inside [San Quentin],” Harris said during a virtual news conference hosted by Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

Harris said public defenders in Marin, Santa Clara and Alameda counties support filing writs of habeas corpus for San Quentin inmates, and at least 44 writs have been filed with the Marin County Superior Court.

The prison had no documented cases of COVID-19 until shortly after the May 30 transfer of approximately 120 people from the California Institution for Men in Chino, which had roughly 500 active cases at the time and had reported 13 deaths.

Since then, the virus has infected more people at San Quentin than at any other state prison. As of Wednesday, the CDCR has tallied 2,232 cases and 25 deaths at San Quentin. The Chino facility, meanwhile, has had 1,103 cases and 19 deaths.

Earlier this week, a 55-year-old San Quentin State Prison guard became the first employee at that facility to die amid the outbreak, officials said.

“People who are incarcerated are especially vulnerable to COVID due to the overcrowding of state prisons,” said Dr. Neeta Thakur, a pulmonologist and critical care physician at the University of California at San Francisco. “As a result, [they] are currently experiencing infection rates 580 percent greater than the general public.”

CDCR officials and Gov. Gavin Newsom have repeatedly said they intend to “decompress” the population at San Quentin and the prison system in general by granting early release to certain non-violent offenders to prevent further coronavirus outbreaks.

Newsom said in June that the state had identified about 3,500 inmates — based on whether they were within 180 days of their scheduled release, whether they were a sex offender or had a history of domestic violence and other factors — who were candidates for early release due to the
pandemic.

CDCR officials have also touted the steps the agency has taken to bolster health and safety by routinely cleaning facilities and installing hand sanitizing stations.

Harris invoked the words of former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Brennan, who wrote in 1963 that “habeas corpus has time and again played a central role in national crises.”

“Unfortunately, we are in crisis again,” Harris said. “The law now requires the court to step in … to prevent further carnage.”

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