San Quentin Prison acted with deliberate indifference, failing to protect inmates from COVID-19

In re Von Staich (Cal. Ct. App., Oct. 20, 2020, No. A160122) 2020 WL 6144780, at *1–2

Petition claiming San Quentin does not adequately protect against COVID-19 infection

 Ivan Von Staich, incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison,serving a sentence of 17 years to life for a second degree  murder consecutive to a 13-year sentence for the attempted murder.

In May, Von Staich, acting in propria persona, filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus alleging CDCR was not adequately prepared to respond to a possible outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel|at San Quentin. Subsequently , San Quentin suffered a devastating outbreak of COVID-19 that infected approximately 75 percent of the inmate population and dozens of prison staff in just weeks.

The Court of Appeal appointed counsel, who filed a supplemental petition on July 23, 2020.

Von Staich  is 64 years of age and suffers respiratory problems resulting from bullet fragments lodged in his left lung. Von Staich filed a declaration stating that he and   his 65-year-old cellmate, both tested positive for COVID-19.  And they were placed on the fourth tier of west block in a cell which, like others in that facility, was “so small that you can touch the walls with your hands.” The declaration states that “[p]rotecting oneself from infection COVID-19 in this open cell is impossible” because “there is no opportunity to engage in social distancing.”

Order to Show Cause issued

The Court issued an order to show cause on August 14, 2020, directing the Warden of San Quentin Prison (Warden) to show cause why relief should not be granted and to transfer petitioner to a suitable quarantine location pending disposition of this proceeding. The Attorney General filed a return and petitioner filed a traverse.

Court finds San Quentin  acted with deliberate indifference to risk of substantial harm to inmates

 Von Staich asked for  placement in a residential facility supervised by CDCR that has already accepted him subject to a brief period of quarantine. Von Staich maintains his continued incarceration at San Quentin violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment embodied in article I, section 17 of the California Constitution and the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Von Staich claimed San Quentin acted with deliberate indifference to the risk of substantial harm to inmates by failing to immediately reduce the population of San Quentin through releasing or transfer by at least 50 percent, in accordance with the recommendation of public-health experts who had been asked to advise CDCR on measures to combat COVID-19 considered necessary to “ ‘protect the health of prisoners, the health of correctional facility staff, the health of health care staff, and the health of the community as a whole.’ ”

Von Staich  also asked for declaratory relief for other similarly situated San Quentin inmates.

The Court agreed  that respondents—the Warden and CDCR— acted with deliberate indifference and relief is warranted.


Von Staich’s petition is not duplicative of Federal Plata case

 The Court of Appeal rejected Respondent’s argument that the petition should be dismissed because petitioner’s claim were “duplicative” of that in Plata v. Newsom (N.D.Cal. 2020) 455 F.Supp.3d 926, and should be decided in that federal proceeding or, alternatively, remanded to the Marin County Superior Court in the interest of judicial economy and to accommodate any need for an evidentiary hearing.

The litigation in Plata is subject to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PRLA), which deprives a federal district court judge of the authority to order the release of prison inmates; release can only be ordered by a three-judge panel of the district court. (18 U.S.C. § 3626.)

Moreover, the United States Supreme Court has said, state courts “have the duty to and competence to vindicate rights secured by the Constitution in state criminal proceedings” and “ ‘should have the first opportunity to review [constitutional claims] and provide any necessary relief.’ ” (Williams v. Taylor (2000) 529 U.S. 420, 436–437, 120 S.Ct. 1479, 146 L.Ed.2d 435, quoting O’Sullivan v. Boerckel (1999) 526 U.S. 838, 844, 119 S.Ct. 1728, 144 L.Ed.2d 1.) Another Division of this Appellate District recently noted that the pendency of a related federal action challenging CDCR actions “does not lessen” a California court’s “authority, and duty, to provide effective [habeas] relief ….” (In re Morales (2013) 212 Cal.App.4th 1410, 1430, fn. 13, 152 Cal.Rptr.3d 123.)

 Court finds situation in San Quentin exigent requiring a determination of the 8th Amendment Claim

 The court stated the issue  is simply whether respondents’ disregard of the experts’ conclusion that a 50 percent population reduction is essential constitutes the “deliberate indifference” necessary to sustain petitioner’s constitutional claim. That issue is one of law, not fact.

Court finds “deliberate indifference” in failing to protect inmates’ health

The Court said it is “ doubtful any correctional agency in the United States is as familiar with the adverse consequences of mass incarceration on inmates’ medical care, and the need to prevent them, as CDCR is or should be, given its litigation of the issue in the Plata and Coleman prisons. (Coleman v. Newsom (N.D.Cal. 2020) 455 F.Supp.3d 926.) Respondents concede the point and agree that responsible prison officials were “subjectively aware” of the risk COVID-19 presents to “inmate health or safety.” (Farmer, supra, 511 U.S. at pp. 837, 839, 847, 114 S.Ct. 1970.)”

The Supreme Court declared in Farmer, “acting or failing to act with deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm to a prisoner is the equivalent of recklessly disregarding that risk. (Farmer, supra, 511 U.S. at p. 836, 114 S.Ct. 1970.)

The Court found that respondents showed deliberate indifference to the risk of substantial harm to Von Staich, a life prisoner whose age makes him vulnerable to COVID-19 even aside from preexisting health conditions, and who also suffers from respiratory problems due to bullet fragments lodged in his left lung. The Court stated, that faced with this pandemic, “respondents’ failure to immediately adopt and implement measures designed to eliminate double celling, dormitory style housing and other measures to permit physical distancing between inmates is morally indefensible and constitutionally untenable.” “Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. ‘ “The basic concept underlying the Eighth Amendment is nothing less than the dignity of man.” ’ ” (Brown v. Plata, supra, 563 U.S. at p. 510, 131 S.Ct. 1910, quoting Atkins v. Virginia (2002) 536 U.S. 304, 311, 122 S.Ct. 2242, 153 L.Ed.2d 335.) “A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society.” (Brown, at pp. 510–511, 131 S.Ct. 1910.)


 The Court ordered Von Staich removed from San Quentin, whether by release or by transfer to another facility where physical distancing is possible. And it ordered the expedited 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.

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