COVID-19 Special Coverage
Federal judge refuses to order California prison officials to release large number of inmates or impose social distancing requirements
© WikiMedia (Michael Coghlan)
Federal judge refuses to order California prison officials to release large number of inmates or impose social distancing requirements

A federal judge refused Friday to order California prison officials to release large number of inmates or impose social-distancing requirements as protections against the coronavirus, saying the state has acted reasonably so far by freeing several thousand prisoners ahead of schedule and taking steps to expand housing and improve sanitation.

US District Judge Jon Tigar stated that, in order for the court to grant relief, a violation of a federal right must have occurred, which in turn requires the court to find that “defendants have been deliberately indifferent to a substantial risk of serious harm to inmate health or safety.” Tigar indicated that this standard had not been met because the California State prison has taken further steps to manage the spread of COVID-19 by producing hand sanitizer, producing about 22,000 masks per day, reducing inmate transfers and placing markers on the floor in communal areas indicating six feet between each space as inmates wait for services.

This Court would likely find an Eighth Amendment violation if Defendants had taken no steps to encourage physical distancing in California’s prisons or otherwise respond to COVID-19. But Defendants have already relocated inmates within and, in some cases, between facilities to increase space, and they have committed to implementing the amount of physical distanced that the Receiver has directed. Defendants have also taken steps to reduce the prison population and implemented a number of policies and practices that comply with the CDC’s recommendations. It would be difficult to conclude that such responses are not ‘reasonable measures to abate’ risk of COVID-19.

Currently, California has 29,410 positive cases of COVID-19, including 1,051 deaths.

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