SF Public Defender's Office Files for Immediate Release of Clients in San Quentin, Amid COVID-19 Outbreak

San Quentin State Prison is continuing to experience an outbreak of coronavirus COVID-19 cases with over 1,000 confirmed cases amongst the staff and inmate population. San Quentin had zero cases of COVID-19 prior to a May 30th transfer of 121 inmates from a Southern California facility. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Staff at the San Francisco Public Defender’s office worked throughout the holiday weekend in an effort to secure the immediate release of roughly 60 clients in San Quentin State Prison, where COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed.

“Our research unit has prepared a habeas petition calling for the Superior Court to immediately release these individuals … on the basis that it represents a risk to their health and safety,” said Stephen Liebb, a legal assistant in the public defender's office.

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Many of those clients are serving life sentences for a third strike, Liebb said. “They're no longer a threat to public safety, except if they were released with a transmissible disease that was propagated by CDCR.”

Until the end of May, San Quentin had remained untouched by the virus, with no recorded cases. That changed quickly after the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation transferred 121 people there from the California Institution for Men in Chino — 25 of whom subsequently tested positive. Since then, the virus has spread like wildfire; as of July 6, more than 1,400 people — including 165 employees — inside San Quentin have tested positive, and at least six have died, according to department records.

“The only way we can protect the lives of people at San Quentin and the larger public is to reduce the prison population as quickly as possible,” San Francisco Public Defender Manohar Raju said in a statement on July 1. “Not only is the treatment of incarcerated people inside California’s prisons unconscionable, but so is the lack of information and transparency regarding the outbreak.”

On Friday, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it was taking active steps to curb the spread of the virus at the prison.

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"CDCR has increased testing at San Quentin for both inmates and staff, ceased intake and non-essential transfers, and implemented limited movement throughout the prison," the agency said in a statement.

Liebb, who was incarcerated in San Quentin from 1995 to 2013, knows firsthand that social distancing is virtually impossible inside the crowded facility, where cells are about the size of a closet.

But his biggest concern is the lack of accountability inside the prison — where family members, volunteers and lawyers are currently not allowed to visit — which, he said, creates a situation rife for “extreme abuse.”

“This is just a devastating situation to be in, where the helplessness and lack of control of incarceration is compounded by a very serious health threat … exacerbated by CDCR,” Liebb said.

The public defender's office is also hurriedly preparing re-entry plans for its clients — including housing accommodations — a cumbersome process that the court requires before considering early release, Liebb said.

“Frankly, I don't see a sense of urgency [among officials]. I see a lot of indifference [despite] a lot of rhetoric that they consider this a serious matter,” he said.

Danielle Harris, an attorney at the public defender’s office, was among the staff who spent the weekend completing paperwork on behalf of her clients.

“Knowing it is a matter of life and death for some, we are using whatever legal tools we have to urgently help these men and their families,” she said in a statement.

Additional Resources

A guide for Providing Acute Care for Seriously Ill Incarcerated Patients, from Amend

KQED's How Can You Help People in Prison Right Now | Cómo Puede Ayudar a Las Personas Que Actualmente Se Encuentran en Prisión