California’s First Court of Appeals has ordered San Quentin State Prison to transfer or release about 1,700 inmates. That’s 50% of the prison population there, an edict based on the theory that San Quentin officials have not done enough to protect inmates from the pandemic. “We agree that respondents — the Warden and CDCR — have acted with deliberate indifference and relief is warranted,” the court said in its opinion last week.
50% was the figure recommended by a team of experts after they investigated the viral spread that has killed dozens and sickened hundreds at San Quentin’s maximum security facillity. The inmate reduction could be achieved through a combination of transfers and early releases, the court said.
The California Department of Corrections opposes the order. “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,” it argued in a statement. “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.”
The Wuhan virus has infected more than 200,000 prison and jail inmates. Nearly 1,300 have died as a result, according to a New York Times database. Civil rights organizations have argued for the release of inmates across the country, using the 8th Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment as their justification. San Quentin presents a particularly tough ethical trade-off. In its opinion, the court ruled that the state prison system had shown “deliberate indifference” to the safety and health of San Quentin’s inmates by not taking sufficient measures to protect them. This, the court wrote, was “morally indefensible and constitutionally untenable.”