The family of San Quentin Prison guard Sgt. Gilbert Polanco, 55, who died in 2020 after a COVID-19 outbreak, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Tues., Aug. 24, 2021 alleging top prison officials’ botched pandemic response led to his death. From left to right: Gilbert Polanco, Selena Polanco, Vincent Polanco and Patricia Polanco. (Photo courtesy Polanco Family)

The family of a San Quentin State Prison guard who died from COVID-19 after an outbreak among inmates and staff last year filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Tuesday against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The suit alleges that 55-year-old Sgt. Gilbert Polanco died because high-level CDCR officials disastrously botched their pandemic response on multiple levels.

At the center of the suit is the decision by prison officials to transfer 122 inmates from the California Institute for Men in Chino to San Quentin on May 30, 2020, almost a month after Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a temporary halt to the intake of inmates at all state facilities over fears about spreading the virus.

Prior to the new inmates’ arrival, San Quentin had no COVID cases, while Chino had more than 600 with nine deaths, according to the suit.

“That kicked off a wildfire of COVID in (San Quentin) and it was catastrophic,” said Julia Sherwin, a lawyer representing the Polanco family.

The ensuing San Quentin outbreak eventually sickened nearly three-quarters of the inmate population and at least 277 prison staff and killed 29 people, Sherwin said at a news conference Tuesday morning.

“These CDCR officials created a COVID cesspool and then required their inmates and employees to marinate in it,” she said.

The suit, which names several officials, including the former and acting wardens, the former head of CDCR and the prison system’s top medical officer, alleges that leadership deliberately decided not to test the Chino inmates for COVID prior to their transfer.

San Quentin Prison guard Sgt. Gilbert Polanco, 55, who died in 2020 after a COVID-19 outbreak. Polanco’s family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on Tuesday, August 24, 2021 alleging top prison officials’ botched pandemic response led to his death. (Photo courtesy Polanco Family)

It also alleges that prison leaders failed to properly quarantine the new inmates, failed to provide inmates or staff with the requisite personal protective equipment, failed to follow safety protocols established by state and local health officers and forced people to move between COVID-free housing units and units with positive cases.

“This was at a time when all of us in the Bay Area were under real strict health orders, so it’s shocking and appalling that CDCR would risk not only all of their inmates’ lives but all of their staff’s lives with these completely reckless decisions,” Sherwin said.

At the time, the San Quentin outbreak was the focus of national media attention and was scrutinized by state lawmakers and the California Office of the Inspector General, which found that the decision to transfer the Chino inmates “risked the health and lives of thousands of incarcerated persons and staff,” according to the suit.

At the news conference Tuesday, Polanco’s wife described how he was working large amounts of overtime shifts because other staff members were calling in sick or retiring early.

“He was just working so much. I asked him not to, let someone else take that other shift, and he would tell me there’s nobody, they have no one,” Patricia Polanco said through tears.

Polanco’s son said he blames CDCR leaders for the outbreak and his father’s death.

“I blame people on the top,” Vincent Polanco said. “It’s all about leadership … and things weren’t done properly. Nothing was done properly.”

When Gilbert Polanco died on Aug. 9, 2020, at Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center, his family wasn’t allowed at his bedside because of COVID precautions.

The suit seeks monetary damages and a lawyer for the family said they’d also be seeking reforms.

“As part of the lawsuit we’ll get a lot of answers that the family has been waiting for,” said lawyer Michael Haddad.

A spokesperson for CDCR said Tuesday afternoon that the department had not yet been served with the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

“We extend our deepest condolences to Sgt. Polanco’s family, friends, and colleagues,” CDCR press secretary Dana Simas said in an email.

Kiley Russell writes primarily for Local News Matters on issues related to equity and the environment. A Bay Area native, he has lived most of his life in Oakland. He studied journalism at San Francisco State University, worked for the Associated Press and the former Contra Costa Times, among other outlets. He has covered everything from state legislatures, local governments, federal and state courts, crime, growth and development, political campaigns of various stripes, wildfires and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.