Photo by Michał Kubalczyk on Unsplash

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) offered prisoners a pizza party as part of a proposed list of agreements to settle their lawsuit that alleged “cruel and unusual punishment” for San Quentin State’s mishandling of the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak.

According to a copy of a confidential proposal dated May 11, 2021, CDCR said it would be willing to agree to a list of terms “in exchange for a global resolution of all COVID-related petitions pending in the Marin County Superior Court.” 

The offer was conveyed in a letter by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, which represents the petitioners. 

“You need to consider whether this settlement is fair considering everything you have endured,” wrote managing attorney Danielle Harris. “My evaluation is that the settlement does not offer much that CDCR is not already providing.” 

When asked about the proposal, Harris declined to comment, saying that she was “not permitted to discuss any confidential settlement offer.”

Most of the items in the proposal were agreements to continue ongoing programs such as COVID-19 vaccinations, medical reprieves at the governor’s discretion, publication of COVID-19 data on CDCR’s website, and free medical care while under CDCR’s jurisdiction. 

However, alongside that included an offer of a special meal. 

“As a morale booster CDCR will provide a special meal at SQ (e.g., pizza party),” the memo said. SQ was shorthand for San Quentin. It did not specify whether the pizza would be provided through an outside vendor like Pizza Hut or Domino’s or whether it would consist of the cardboard-like pizza slices that are distributed in our prison dinners. 

“It’s a fucking insult,” said petitioner Mike Beaudette after reading the offer, which circulated quickly around San Quentin’s recreational yard. “It’s like spitting in an inmate’s face and then slapping them afterwards.” 

More than 300 San Quentin residents had filed suit against the prison and CDCR after 122 prisoners were transferred from the California Institute for Men (CIM) in May 2020,  triggering one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks that infected more than 2,300 prisoners and killed 28. 

The original petitioner, Ivan Von Steich, had won his habeas case last fall, the judgment had included an order for San Quentin to reduce its population, but the decision was vacated on appeal.

“This is worse than toilet paper,” said petitioner Joshua Grant, who was among the 122 men transferred from CIM. “I can’t believe they’d think anyone — let alone all of us — would even think about accepting this, especially ‘cause there’s nothing on there that we’re not already getting.”

The confidential proposal had been sent out on May 11, 2021, shortly before Judge Geoffrey M. Howard heard evidentiary testimony in a hearing that spanned 11 days and was live-streamed inside the prison. Howard has not yet ruled on the case. 

In addition to the pizza party, CDCR said it would also move ahead with its plans to distribute free computer tablets that would allow residents to download approved digital content and communicate with their families and friends through a closed electronic messaging system. 

CDCR said it would be willing to agree to the list of terms only if every petitioner signed the settlement offer.  

Petitioner John Mattox, who had also been transferred from CIM and was the first confirmed positive COVID-19 case inside San Quentin, said he saw the settlement as an admission of CDCR’s guilt. 

“Why offer a settlement if you did nothing wrong?” asked Mattox, pointing out the irony of a prison administration that expects its residents to pay for their crimes, but shirks its own responsibilities. “CDCR knows they did wrong by us, but they don’t want to do the right thing.”

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Joe Garcia

Joe is a journalist at San Quentin State Prison and a staff reporter for San Quentin News. A San Francisco native with no connection to the carceral system before his arrest, Joe first believed prisons were filled with the worst people imaginable. But within his first week in Los Angeles County Jail, he found himself surrounded by people with rich, complex stories. Joe requested a transfer to San Quentin with the express purpose of working for the prisoner-run newspaper and now helps fellow prisoners find their voices as writers. In addition to prison publications, his work has appeared in the Washington Post and the Sacramento Bee.