San Quentin Prison Staff Forcing Prisoners to Accept Liability for Their Own Deaths from COVID-19

Excerpted from a message from the No Justice Under Capitalism Coalition

… San Quentin medical staff have been pressuring prisoners to sign waiver forms accepting legal responsibility for their own deaths from COVID-19.

That, despite more than 10 months of continuous neglect and Eighth Amendment violations by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) which has, so far, killed 28 prisoners at the prison.

Multiple prisoners at San Quentin tell the same story. From December 2 – 4, they were taken to the medical unit and pressured by a nurse to accept an unsafe transfer to another California prison.

If they refused the transfer, the nurse would then pressure the prisoner to sign a waiver form. The form… states, in part: “I agree to hold the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the staff of the medical department and the institution free of any responsibility for injury or complications that may result from my refusal [of the transfer].”

The prisoner is then pressured to initial sentences such as:

“I understand that due to my age, I am at high risk for developing serious complications [from COVID-19] . . .”

“I understand that I have one or more medical conditions that makes me high risk for developing serious complications [from COVID-19] . . .”

“I understand that COVID-19 could lead to serious complications such as lengthy hospitalizations or even death.”

“I understand that living in places where individuals are in close contact and physical distancing is difficult to follow, such as prison dormitory [sic], will increases [sic] my risk of being infected by COVID-19.”

Coercing prisoners to accept legal liability for their own deaths from COVID-19 is truly bizarre, given San Quentin’s documented, 10-month-long history of continuous indifference to prisoners’ lives – since the COVID-19 pandemic began, guards at San Quentin and throughout the California prison system have not worn masks, and moved freely between tiers.

A recent (October 2020) report by the California Office of the Inspector General states that prison staff frequently do not wear masks, and that there has only been one disciplinary action against a staff person, during the entire pandemic, at San Quentin for not wearing a mask.

The waiver form also demands that prisoners accept liability for being medically vulnerable and elderly. In fact, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported (December 6, 2020), CDCR has consistently refused to release at-risk elderly and immunocompromised prisoners, completely ignoring more than 5,200 out of the 6,500 at-risk prisoners in California prisons.

Overcrowding at San Quentin is also not the fault of individual prisoners.

In the gym at San Quentin, CDCR claimed in June 2020 that prisoners were six feet apart when housed in bunk beds. In actuality, prisoners were only six feet apart if they slept head to toe and the distance was measured diagonally.

Following months of public pressure and protest, the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco issued a decision, In re Ivan Von Staich (2020) 56 Cal.App.5th 53, holding that CDCR had violated the Eighth Amendment and ordering San Quentin to reduce its population by 50 percent – the minimum amount required for social distancing to take place.

Instead of accepting responsibility for their criminal neglect, Gov. Gavin Newsom and leaders at CDCR are now attempting to shift responsibility for their actions onto the backs of the victims of the state’s own incompetence and malfeasance.

No Justice Under Capitalism (NJUC) is a coalition working on behalf of prisoners throughout California. NJUC has organized protests in front of San Quentin since May 2020, along with other actions at prisons across the state, in front of CDCR’s offices in Sacramento, and in front of Governor Newsom’s and CDCR Secretary Diaz’s homes.

NJUC calls for immediate mass releases of prisoners as the only safe response to the COVID-19 crisis in California prisons, prioritizing elderly and immunocompromised prisoners, as well as prisoners whose sentences are almost over.