Supreme Court rejects California's immunity for COVID-19 prison deaths


The Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal by California prison officials who sought immunity from lawsuits over transferring prisoners with COVID-19 to San Quentin in May 2020, killing 26 inmates and one guard. Death had occurred.

The judges dismissed the appeals without comment or dissent.

The transfer decision was later dismissed by state lawmakers as a “failure”, “disgusting” and “the worst prison health mess in state history.”

The California Institution for Men in Chino was hit hard by COVID-19. In May 2020, nine of its inmates died and nearly 600 were infected.

There were no known cases in San Quentin at that time. In an effort to prevent further losses at CIM, prison officials decided to transfer 122 inmates from Chino North to San Quentin.

Within days, San Quentin reported 25 COVID cases among 122 new arrivals. Within three weeks, the virus spread to 499 other people.
By early September, at least 2,100 inmates and 270 staff had tested positive.

The state now faces four major lawsuits from the families of those who died, as well as inmates and staff who were infected but survived.

Those lawsuits can move forward now that California's federal courts and Supreme Court have rejected the state's claim that prison officials had “qualified immunity” that protected them from prosecution.

That controversial doctrine often protects police officers from lawsuits. Judges have said that police and other government officials can be prosecuted for violating the constitutional rights of individuals, but only if they knowingly violated a “clearly established” right.

Courts have held that police officers must frequently decide whether, for example, a suspect being pursued has a gun. For this reason, courts sometimes protect officers from prosecution for “unreasonable seizure” if an officer shoots a fleeing person based on the mistaken belief that the suspect was armed.

Lawyers for the families said the cases pending in the prison are quite different, as prison officials decided to carry out the transfers without taking the precautions deemed necessary at the time.

The guard who died, Sergeant Gilbert Polanco, was 55 years old and had worked at San Quentin for more than two decades. He had multiple health conditions, including obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, which would have put him at higher risk if he contracted COVID-19.

His duties during the pandemic included transporting sick inmates to local hospitals, but lawyers said prison officials refused to provide him or the inmates with personal protective equipment.
In late June 2020, he became infected with COVID-19 and after a prolonged hospital stay, he died in August.

In Polanco's case, the lawsuit alleges that he lost his life due to a “state-created threat.”

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said prison officials affirmatively exposed Polanco to a danger he would not otherwise have faced and failed to take steps to protect him from the danger they created.

The Supreme Court has previously ruled that prisoners have the right to be protected against “unnecessary and uncontrolled pain”, including “deliberate indifference to their serious medical needs”. Lawyers for San Quentin inmates said prison officials could be held liable under that standard.

Lawyers for the state of California urged the Supreme Court to review and overturn a 9th Circuit decision that had rejected a qualified immunity defense for prison officers.

“The facts of these cases are undeniably tragic,” he said. But “in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when little was known about the disease and testing supplies were limited, responding officers attempted to protect the lives of many vulnerable inmates who were being held in a prison where the virus It was massive.” ,

With the benefit of hindsight, they agreed that his actions may have been considered wrong, but “no clearly established law dictated to him that his alleged mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic at San Quentin prison Was unconstitutional.”

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