San Quentin State Prison in Marin County. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

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With much of the U.S. under shelter-at-home orders and told to keep 6 feet away from each other to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, attorneys in California’s decades-old prison overcrowding case are seeking to further reduce the state’s prison population as conditions inside make it literally impossible to practice social distancing.

“We are still overcrowded and with this virus, this is one of the problems we are facing within our prison system is that folks are too close together,” said Romarilyn Ralston, an organizer and policy advocate with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. “It is inevitable that folks will become infected.”

The coronavirus has already reached California’s prisons as 22 staff members and four inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys filed an emergency motion seeking a substantial release of prisoners in the class action prison reform case, which successfully argued that California’s prisons were so crowded it constituted cruel and unusual punishment in part because of a lack of access to proper medical care.

The motion does not specify exactly how many inmates would need to be released, but argued that tens of thousands are at risk. The state opposed the motion in a filing on Tuesday and argued that it had already taken steps to reduce the prison population in response to the coronavirus.

A three-judge panel appointed to oversee the case will consider the plaintiffs’ motion on Thursday.

The issues of health care and crowding in California’s prisons have been litigated for 30 years. In 2009, the three-judge court overseeing a combined class action case ordered the state to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity. At the time, California prisons were incarcerating twice as many people as they were designed to hold.

As of this year, the state has reduced its population below that goal, to 134.4 percent of design capacity, more than 120,000 inmates in a system designed to house fewer than 90,000. But in light of the spread of the coronavirus, advocates say that is still too crowded to allow for isolation and social distancing and prevent widespread infection.

For example, the motion reports that 46,265 people in state prisons live in dorms, some of which are designed to house four to six people, but may be housing nearly twice that.

Even in dorms at capacity, social distancing is impossible. But more than 29,000 people in prisons live in dorms at over 137.5 percent design capacity and more than 13,000 live in dorms at or over 175 percent design capacity.

The court filings included photos of the current crowded state of many dorms, which show “how impossible it is for the men and women working in California’s prisons to follow the directions from Gov. (Gavin) Newsom and public health officials to stay safe,” said Michael Bien, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

In addition, many California prisoners are serving very long sentences and therefore are growing older and many have developed chronic medical conditions that put them at greater risk of dying if they contract the coronavirus.

A quarter of the state’s prison population is over 50 and nearly 15 percent have a medical classification of high risk, according to the motion.

If the disease spreads in the prisons, many inmates would need to be hospitalized outside of the prison system, according to Bien, as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has no intensive care unit and no ventilators.

As many California prisons are in rural areas, hospitalizing large numbers of inmates could strain small, remote hospitals, Bien said.

In a motion opposing any changes to its prisoner cap, attorneys with the California Department of Justice said that the state has taken some steps to reduce the prison population.

California has suspended all transfers from county jails, which it said would reduce the prison population by 3,000 over a month. The state said it will seek early parole for 3,500 eligible people whose release dates are in the next 60 days.

It also said that it would transfer up to 530 inmates living in dorms to other prisons. But that’s a far cry from the tens of thousands the plaintiffs’ attorneys report are living in overcrowded dorms.