Supreme Court denies California’s appeal for immunity for COVID-19 deaths at San Quentin prison

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday denied an appeal from California corrections officials who sought immunity from lawsuits claiming they acted with deliberate indifference when they caused a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at one of the world’s most famous prisons four years ago.

The justices turned down the appeal without comment or dissent.

The lawsuit stemmed from the botched transfer of infected inmates in May 2020 from a Southern California prison to San Quentin, which at the time had no infections. The coronavirus then quickly sickened 75% of inmates at the prison north of San Francisco, leading to the deaths of 28 inmates and a correctional officer.

California now faces four lawsuits from the relatives of those who died as well as from inmates and staff who were infected but survived.

“The state has had its due process all the way to the Supreme Court. They’re not getting off on a technicality,” Michael J. Haddad, an attorney for the families, said in a statement following the high court's decision. “Now it’s time to face the facts. Prison administrators killed 29 people in what the 9th Circuit called a ‘textbook case’ of deliberate indifference.”

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said Monday that it does not comment on active legal proceedings.

Prison officials “ignored virtually every safety measure” in making the transfers, Marin County Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Howard wrote in a 2021 tentative ruling in the case.

In 2021, California workplace safety regulators hit San Quentin with a $421,880 fine, one of the largest pandemic-related penalties against an employer.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, who represents the San Quentin area, called the deaths “completely avoidable” and said the transfer never should have happened. “I don’t say this lightly, but this is a failure of leadership," McGuire said during a 2020 Senate oversight hearing.

Lawyers for the state have maintained prison officials took numerous steps to try to protect inmates from infection, including temporarily reducing the population of the state’s oldest prison by 40%, short of the 50% recommended in June 2020 by health experts.

Prison officials said the botched transfer itself was a flawed but well-intentioned effort to move 121 vulnerable inmates away from an outbreak at the California Institution for Men in Chino.