The family of a prisoner who died of COVD-19 while serving time in San Quentin State Prison filed a wrongful death lawsuit this week against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
According to the lawsuit, Danny Ruiz, a 61-year-old prisoner who was serving time for a nonviolent drug offense and for being a felon in possession of a firearm, had been in San Quentin since January 2020. However, in May 2020, to help mitigate growing COVID-19 rates among prisoners 122 prisoners were transferred from the California Institute for Men (CIM) in San Bernardino County to San Quentin in Marin County. This caused San Quentin cases to skyrocket, peaking at 1,200 cases in June 2020.
Ruiz, who was at a high risk of contracting COVID-19 due to having asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), was not moved during the reshuffle, causing him to contract COVID-19 and later die from it that July.
The suit alleges that prison officials acted with deliberate indifference in taking the proper precautions such as temperature checks and COVID-19 tests before the San Quentin transfer, as well as not taking into account Ruiz’s high risk condition and disregarding prison health officials warnings that transfers would only spread the disease to other prisons.
On Wednesday, the Ruiz family released a statement detailing what they went through, placing the blame on the CDCR.
“It was agonizing for me, it was agonizing for us all,” said Vanessa Robinson, Ruiz’s daughter, in the statement. “We watched him pass away on Zoom.”
“It was devastating to see him like that,” added Ruiz’s sister Angel Ruiz Corona. “We knew we were going to lose him but hoped he could hear us and know he wasn’t alone.”
On Thursday, legal experts noted that the CDCR may have a difficult time defending their decisions.
“Over 160 prisoners have died due to COVID-19 since March 2020,” criminal lawyer Charlotte Weiss told the Globe. “The CDCR had plenty of chances from March to May last year to avoid something like this. Increased prisoner isolation and distancing, more tests, better condition, and more early releases just off the top of my head. Prisoner transfers were being widely decried even at the time for that exact reason, but it still happened. They are going to have to defend that decision. And the excuse of ‘It was the beginning of COVID, we were still trying to figure things out’ doesn’t really work when you’re more than two months in and that happens.
“This one is going to get a lot of attention because a lot of prisoners nationwide in ways similar to this, and the outcome, especially a settlement, might inspire others.”
The Ruiz case against the CDCR is expected to go to trial later this year.
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