The San Quentin yard: a baseball diamond covered in geese, with brick buildings and fences all around it. Men in blue feed the geese.
Acrylic painting of the yard at San Quentin State Prison by the late artist Ronnie Goodman, who was incarcerated at San Quentin before he began his career as a well-known artist living on the streets of San Francisco. (Ronnie Goodman)

In a historic first, a public court hearing was livestreamed via Zoom inside San Quentin State Prison where prisoners have been gathering in the chapel area since late May to watch their peers, prison officials, and expert witnesses testify about the prison’s mishandling of one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. A forced transfer of 122 prisoners from the California Institute for Men (CIM) last May brought COVID-19 into San Quentin, triggering a massive outbreak within its population of roughly 4,000 at the time. 

Since then, over 300 men filed habeas corpus petitions, an emergency filing alleging that San Quentin and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) demonstrated “deliberate indifference” and violated the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. 

“The way CDCR and then San Quentin handled our transfer from CIM, it was awful,” said Joshua Grant, one of the men who had been transferred. “I remember all of it. They threw us on a bus and didn’t help us at all… When guys told them they were feeling sick and had symptoms, they accused us of lying to try and avoid being transferred.”

The evidentiary hearing that was being broadcast from Marin County Superior Court has been taking place after the petitions were joined together into a class action lawsuit. It spotlights the serious health risks caused by rampant overcrowding in the era of mass incarceration.

“Bottom line—there’s just too many people living in these deplorable conditions,” Juan Haines, one of the primary plaintiffs, said after giving his testimony about his experience being quarantined after testing positive. 

Haines is one of many in the San Quentin incarcerated community, who are hoping for a court ruling that would order CDCR to reduce the prison’s population to under 2,000. A previous California court decision last October ordered the population to be reduced down to 1,775, but that ruling has since been appealed and vacated, pending the outcome of these hearings.

Seven full days of evidentiary testimony included numerous medical and science experts who explained in great detail how disastrous San Quentin’s living conditions can be toward the spread of infectious disease. Expert witnesses, who had toured the San Quentin facility last year, described what they saw as “foreboding” and “the worst outbreak in a correctional setting I’ve ever seen.”

Sam Robinson, San Quentin’s public information officer, commented that prison officials were not being “deliberately indifferent.”

“It’s a high bar to prove,” he said. “We believe the outcome will be in favor of the state.”

Opening day of testimony started off with John Mattox, the transferred prisoner from CIM who is officially recognized as patient zero, the first confirmed positive case of COVID-19 inside San Quentin. 

“I don’t know if it’s going to do any good,” said Mattox, adding that he only testified because he had been subpoenaed. He said he did it “to honor my friend Francis Douglas, a 74 -year-old fellow veteran who died of COVID-19 at Chino. I was there with him for over seven years before they transferred me to San Quentin.”

Larry Williams, another plaintiff, is slated to go home in less than two weeks but said he filed his habeus petition last year hoping for an earlier release. Williams, who has underlying health conditions, testified about contracting COVID-19 after a correctional officer asked him to help move hundreds of boxes belonging to the men transferred from CIM. 

“I don’t expect much, maybe just a moral victory if nothing else,” Williams said after his testimony. “CDCR’s gonna do what they want.” 

Still, he added that he hoped “this case will bring about real prison reform – where they actually do something, not just say they’re gonna do something.” 

CDCR and its respondents have said that population size is no longer a significant factor, given the current prisoner vaccination rate of 77 percent. San Quentin returned to normal programming in early May. 

Acting Warden Ron Broomfield, Chief Medical Officer Alison Pachynski and others testified about the positive steps the administration has taken since the outbreak to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on its incarcerated residents.

But San Quentin’s residents were not convinced.

“It’s all backwards with these people,” said Orlando Harris, who experienced the rapid spread of COVID-19 in North Block. 

“When we go in front of the parole board, all we ask is that they look at who I am today, not who we were 20 years ago, 30 years ago. But in this case, they only want to talk about what they’re doing right now today. They don’t want to be held accountable for the mistakes they made last year,” he added. “How crazy is that?”

CDCR’s first witness was associate warden Jason Bishop, who worked at CIM during the ill-fated transfer of the prisoners on May 30, 2020, and subsequently worked at San Quentin. “Do you know when the first inmate died of COVID at San Quentin,” plaintiff attorney Thomas Brown asked Bishop under cross-examination. Bishop said he did not know this information.

“Do you know when the last inmate died?” continued Brown.

Again, Bishop had no answer.

“Do you know the name of the first inmate who died? Do you know the last inmate to die?”

When Bishop said no, Brown asked him, “Do you know any of their names?”

Bishop did not.

Jesse Johnson, another plaintiff who had testified, sat in the chapel every day to view the hearings in their entirety. 

“I just see them dodging blame, passing the buck, telling lies,” said Johnson, who is expected to be released in the next month. “In general, they’ve been speaking of a bunch of policies that were clearly never enforced.”

He said he joined the class action lawsuit “for the people who suffered and died here and for the future people who become incarcerated here.

“Someone needs to hold this place accountable for what happened, so this never happens again,” Johnson said. 

This article was originally published by the Prison Journalism Project, an online magazine whose aim is to help incarcerated writers and those in communities affected by incarceration tell stories about their world using the tools of journalism.

Joe Garcia is the chairperson of the Journalism Guild at San Quentin News, the nation’s only prison newspaper run by the incarcerated. He is also an editorial liaison for the Prison Journalism Project and has been published in The Sacramento Bee.