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

Opening statements are set to begin on Thursday in Marin County Superior Court in an unprecedented trial involving more than 300 incarcerated people who allege that San Quentin State Prison and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation mishandled a COVID-19 outbreak last year that resulted in 29 deaths.

The over 300 petitioners have been enjoined under just four petitioners: Ian Michael Hall, Darius Sommons, Ivan Von Staich and Dontaye Harris.

The petitioners are being represented by the Marin County Public Defender’s Office and the San Francisco County Public Defender’s Office, among others.

The trial is the result of several individuals filing emergency petitions that alleged unlawful incarceration under the U.S. Constitution’s Eight Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

In May 2020, the CDCR transferred 121 inmates from the California Institution for Men in Chino, Calif. to San Quentin in San Rafael as the COVID-19 pandemic was unfolding.

Prior to the transfer, there were no cases of COVID-19 at San Quentin, but afterward, some 2,614 inmates and workers at San Quentin became infected. Ultimately, 28 inmates and one worker died.

“They didn’t adequately take measures to quarantine people to stop the spread and as we all know by now, it spread like wildfire,” San Francisco Public Defender’s Office State Policy Director Danica Rodarmel said.

According to Rodarmel, the trial is expected to consist of two phases.

“First, to see whether the CDCR violated the prisoners’ rights with the transfers. If we win that and the judge agrees, then (the next step would be) how do we make that better? At that point, we will be talking about current conditions and what relief can be granted and that remains a big question right now,” she said.

“At this point, people have been on complete lockdown for 14 months with no access to loved ones, no access to programs and under really stressful and traumatic conditions,” she said. “How do we make this wrong right? How can we repair this harm will be the big question.”

San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju said in a statement earlier this week, “This case provides even more evidence of how harmful our system of mass incarceration is, exposing its fundamental failures and illuminating the dire need for de-carceration.”

In February, the state’s Office of the Inspector General released a report identifying the transfer of the 122 inmates as the locus for the outbreak.

“The transfers were done with the intent to mitigate potential harm to CIM patients from COVID-19, and were based on a thoughtful risk analysis using scientific information available in May 2020 concerning transmission of this novel disease,” the CDCR and California Correctional Health Care Services, the agency that oversees health care within the state prison system, said in response to the report. “We have acknowledged some mistakes were made in the process of these transfers, and both CCHCS and CDCR have made appropriate changes to patient movement since that time.”

The trial is set to be heard by Marin County Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Howard and is expected to last several weeks.