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California Three-Judge Court Denies Emergency Motion to Reduce Prison Population During Pandemic

On April 4, 2020, a three-judge court in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California denied a motion seeking an order requiring the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to immediately release specific categories of inmates due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The decision came 5 days after California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he would grant early release to 3,500 prisoners to try to check the spread of coronavirus among prisoners and employees at the state’s 35 prisons. Lawyers representing the governor told the court that Newsom was already taking “extraordinary and unprecedented protective measures” to fight COVID-19.
“He feels like he’s in a Nazi Germany death camp,” the daughter of one prisoner told the Los Angeles Times. “They basically locked them all in the ‘sick’ dorm and are only taking guys out with a high fever…An inmate in his dorm of 150 men just tested positive, so they put his entire dorm on lockdown. He can’t get bandages he needs for open sores from an autoimmune disease. He’s 72 and due out in August.”

The Emergency Motion to Modify Population Reduction Order, filed on March 25, 2020 by attorneys for the Prison Law Office and the law firm Rosen, Bien, Galvan, and Grunfeld, was an extension of two decades old lawsuits, now named Coleman v. Newson (from 1990) and Plata v. Newsom (from 2001).

Coleman concerned CDCR’s failure to provide constitutionally adequate mental health care services to inmates with serious medical disorders. Plata involved CDCR’s failure to provide constitutionally adequate medical care. In response to these cases, a Special Master was appointed to oversee remedial efforts, and a Receiver was appointed to take control of the medical care system. At the time, the CDCR was required to reduce its population to 137.5 percent design capacity within two years, by 2011. Over the next nine years, the CDCR sought termination of the Special Master and Receiver.

With the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, attorneys filed the emergency motion seeking an order requiring the CDCR to reduce its population density in crowded dorms and living spaces to a level that would “allow social distancing by releasing to parole or post-release community supervision all people who (a) are at low risk as determine by CDCR’s risk assessment instruments, or are serving time for a non-violent offense, or (b) are paroling within the year,” according to the Prison Law Office.

The motion also sought an order that the CDCR release or reallocate all incarcerated people at high risk of COVID-19. Specifically, attorneys sought the release or reallocation of “inmates who, because of their age or other medical conditions, are at a high risk of developing a severe form of COVID-19,” according to court filings.

In considering this motion, the court highlighted that CDCR had started implementing “protective measures at least as of March 11, 2020.” Specifically, the court cited canceling visitation, distribution of hand sanitizer, and posting institutional educational flyers. The court also noted CDCR’s creation of a command center that can “make decisions and provide guidance quickly.”

In support of the court’s denial of Plaintiff’s motion, it cited California Governor Gavin Newson’s issuance of an executive order directing “CDCR to suspend admissions of inmates to state custody for an additional 30 days” and CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz’s announcement that the CDCR was accelerating the release of inmates with less than 60 days remaining on their sentence.

The court focused its analysis on whether the action was proper. First, the court noted that “the Prison Litigation Reform Act places significant restrictions on a federal court’s authority to order the release of prisoners as a remedy for a constitutional violation.” Then, the court stated that the relief sought was “not actually a modification of the 2009 order but rather new relief based on the new threat of harm posed by COVID-19.” Plaintiffs could not satisfy the prior order requirements because “there have not yet been any orders requiring Defendants to take measures short of release to address the threat of the virus; nor have Defendants had a reasonable time in which to comply.”

After a lengthy discussion of whether the court had the authority to alter the 2009 population reduction order, the court said that it did not in the case of the COVID-19 threat. Only modifications based on the “constitutional violations previously found by the Coleman and Plata courts” would be proper. The current pandemic was found to be outside the scope of the original litigation’s subject matter.

“[T]he impetus for the release order Plaintiffs seek is different from the overarching structural violations underlying the 2009 population reduction order,” said the court. “The specific harm Plaintiffs allege is not caused by constitutional shortcomings in Defendant’s ability to provide medical and mental health services.”

The court further explained, “That the harm Plaintiffs face is not dependent on the existence of a constitutionally inadequate health care delivery system is strong evidence that it is rooted in a significantly different underlying cause than what was before us in the prior three-judge court proceedings.”

Citing Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 60(b)(5) and the PLRA, the court held that since Plaintiffs’ “motion seeks a release order to redress a different constitutional injury . . . relief cannot be granted through a modification” of the 2009 order.

The  court denied the motion without prejudice and said Plaintiffs could bring their request for relief in an appropriate forum. See: Ralph Coleman, et al. v. Gavin Newsom et al., Marciano Plata , et al. v. Gavin Newsom et al., Case No. 01-CV-01351-JST, 2020 WL 1675775 (E.D. Cal.) 


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Related legal case

Ralph Coleman, et al. v. Gavin Newsom et al., Marciano Plata , et al. v. Gavin Newsom et al.