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California must halve the number of inmates at San Quentin Prison to protect them from the coronavirus pandemic that has already burned through the facility, a state appeals court ruled.

Faulting corrections officials for “deliberate indifference” to the health of inmates, the three-judge panel issued an order Tuesday that no more than 1,775 inmates can be held at the 168-year-old prison north of San Francisco. In June, the prison held 3,462 inmates, according to its most recent statistics.

San Quentin appeared to be largely free of coronavirus this spring, according to the prison system’s Covid tracking numbers. But in July, the virus swept through the cellblocks. The most recent count reports 2,239 total confirmed cases and 28 deaths.

Cases dropped off in late summer. In the last 14 days, only one new case has been reported.

Inmate Ivan Von Staich, who was convicted in 1986 of murdering his ex-girlfriend’s husband, sued prison official in May, claiming they were violating his constitutional rights against cruel and unusual punishment by housing him in a facility that lacked social distancing and other safeguards against the spread of the virus.

The panel ordered prison officials to immediately move Staich, who says he has tested positive for coronavirus, to another prison or facility.

In addition, it ordered prison officials to provide for “sufficient physical distancing” for the rest of San Quentin inmates by releasing or transferring 50% of them.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it disagrees with the ruling and will determine its next steps.

“We have implemented response and mitigation efforts across the system,” the agency said in a statement. “As of today, CDCR’s COVID-19 cases are the lowest they have been since May (493 cases reported today, and over 14,000 resolved), with San Quentin recording only one new case among the incarcerated population in nearly a month.”

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By Kelley Wheeler

Kelley Wheeler is a Metro reporter covering political issues and general assignments. A second-generation journalist, worked with all major news outlet, she holds a vast expeirience. Kelley is a graduate of USC with degrees in journalism and English literature. She is a recipient of Yale’s Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

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