Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Family of San Quentin Prisoner Who Died of COVID-19 Due to “Horribly Botched Transfer” Files Lawsuit

According to the suit, in January 2020, the 61-year-old Ruiz entered San Quentin to begin serving a four-year sentence for possession of a controlled substance for sale and for possession of a handgun by a felon. In March 2020, Ruiz received an early release notice based upon his good behavior and his crimes being nonviolent. The following month he was approved for home release.

As early as March 4, 2020, Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed a State of Emergency as a result of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. By that time all of the Defendants had been briefed and warned of the grave danger of the COVID-19 outbreak, its highly transmissible nature, and the necessity to observe precautions to slow its spread that included: quarantine of those known or suspected to have been exposed to the virus; the need for cleanliness, social distancing, and personal protective equipment (PPE); and the need to regularly test for virus carriers because many are asymptomatic.

Throughout the month of March, Newsom issued several decrees in response to the pandemic, including a shelter-in-place order that was enforceable as a misdemeanor; and suspending intake of inmates into all state facilities. The California Correctional Healthcare Services also opposed the transfer of inmates between prisons, saying “mass movement of high-risk inmates between institutions without outbreaks is ill-advised and potentially dangerous” and noting that it “carries significant risk of spreading transmission of the disease between institutions.”

In spite of these orders and knowledge, on May 30, 2020, the Defendants ordered and approved the transfer of 122 people from the California Institute for Men at Chino (CIM) to San Quentin. As of that date, San Quentin had zero cases of COVID-19. But CIM had been ravaged by the disease, already having had 600 prisoners infected and nine dead. The men who were transferred had not been tested for COVID within the last three to four weeks. They were not screened before boarding the buses. Defendants packed prisoners onto the buses that far exceeded the COVID-capacity limits mandated by the CDCR. Some of the prisoners fell ill and exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 en route to San Quentin. After arrival at San Quentin, many of them tested positive.

Upon learning of the transfer, San Quentin, Marin County Public Health Officer Matthew Willis, M.D., M.P.H., immediately informed Defendants that the transferred prisoners must be completely sequestered from the native San Quentin population. Willis also recommended mandatory mask wearing for all exposed prisoners and staff, and that movement between different housing units be restricted.

Unbelievably, Defendants placed the transferred prisoners in the Badger housing unit — an area that shared open air space, a dining hall, and showers with the existing San Quentin population — and refused to implement the safety measures recommended by Willis. Defendants chose instead to flout Willis’s order and inform him that he lacked authority to mandate any measures in state-run prisons. Days later, 25 of those prisoners tested positive for COVID-19.

The outbreak exploded and within three weeks, San Quentin went from zero cases of COVID-19 to 499 confirmed cases. By July 7, 2020, more than 1,300 prisoners and 184 staff tested positive at the prison. About three weeks later, the number of prisoners testing positive jumped to more than 2,181 (about two-thirds of the prisoner population at San Quentin). By September 2, 2020, approximately 26 prisoners and one correctional sergeant from San Quentin had died due to this COVID-19 outbreak.

On June 19, 2020, Ruiz tested positive for COVID-19. Three days later, Defendants had Ruiz admitted to St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco. Within a week, he was placed on a ventilator. Ruiz’s condition continued to deteriorate. Instead of contacting his family as required by state law, Defendants Alison Pachynski, M.D. and Shannon Garrigan, M.D., along with the consent of the other Defendants, appointed themselves to be Ruiz’s surrogates and empowered themselves to make medical decisions for Ruiz. Defendants Pachynski and Garrigan informed the hospital that all medical decisions and updates to the family would go through them and they forbade hospital staff from contacting Ruiz’s family.

It wasn’t until July 6, 2020, after Ruiz had coded, was resuscitated, and was determined to be unlikely to survive, that Defendants gave the hospital permission to contact Ruiz’s family. Defendants’ actions denied Ruiz any contact with his family for the nearly one month he was hospitalized. Shortly before he died, two of his children — in fully protective suits, masks, and gear — were permitted to enter his room but were not allowed to touch him or communicate with him as he was ventilated.

On July 8, 2020, hospital officials informed Plaintiffs and the rest of Ruiz’s family that they had to make the painful decision to remove him from life support. All of his organs had collapsed and, even though he was conscious, there was no hope for his survival. By July 11, Ruiz’s death was imminent. His family could only watch on a ZOOM call. He died alone, without his family by his side.

The Plaintiffs alleged five causes of action, including: First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment violations due to Defendant’s deliberate indifference in subjecting Ruiz to inhumane conditions of confinement, failing to implement and follow known protocols that prevent transmission of COVID-19, and interfering with his right to familial association while he suffered from and battled the disease; supervisory liability in approving/allowing the transfer of infected prisoners to San Quentin without testing, screening, distancing, masking, PPE, isolation or quarantine; state law violations for failing to provide masks, testing, separation of infected prisoners, and restriction of movement between units within the prison; and ADA claims related to Ruiz’s underlying health issues (he had asthma, COPD, lipidemia, and Hepatitis C) and the Defendants’ failure to make accommodations for his disabilities which resulted in him contracting COVID-19 and dying.

“Nobody wants their parents to suffer and die like that,” Daniel Ruiz, Jr. said in a statement.

Ruiz’s daughter, Vanessa Robinson, added, “It was agonizing for me, it was agonizing for us all. We watched him pass away on Zoom.”

Plaintiffs are represented by Michael J. Haddad and Julia Sherwin. They are also representing the family of Sgt. Gilbert Polanco, a San Quentin prison guard who died from COVID-19 in August.

Another pending class-action lawsuit, unrelated to the transfer, was filed in Monterey County Superior Court in February 2021. That suit alleges officials at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad caused a “super-spreader” event by pulling Black prisoners from their cells in the middle of the night the previous July, and holding them in close quarters without masks while abusing them with racist behavior and comments as their cells were searched. The warden claims it was a “properly executed gang investigation.” Yet it led to 2,700 coronavirus cases and 17 deaths at the prison.

As of March 18, 2021, almost 50,000 people in CDCR custody and an additional 16,000 staff members have been infected with COVID-19. See: Ruiz v. California, No. 3:21-cv-01832, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.). 


As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Ruiz v. California