Family of prison officer who died of the coronavirus sues San Quentin

The family of a prison officer filed a civil rights lawsuit on Tuesday saying their loved one suffered a wrongful death because of the dangerous conditions at San Quentin caused by the correctional system's "intentional and deliberately indifferent" decisions regarding the coronavirus. 

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, came slightly more than a year after death of Sgt. Gilbert Polanco of San Jose, who died Aug. 9, 2020. His widow, Patricia, and children, Vincent and Selena Polanco, are being represented by the Oakland firm of Julia Sherwin and Michael Haddad.

The 55-year-old Polanco, who was also was a U.S. Army veteran, was the first employee to die from the virus at San Quentin. Polanco also suffered from diabetes and hypertension. 

"I just want them to be accountable and take responsibility for his death," Patricia Polanco said during a Zoom news conference. "This should have never happened."

Added Sherwin: "Officials created a COVID cesspool and then required their inmates and employees to marinate in it…It's shocking and appalling that CDCR would risk not only the inmates' lives, but also all of their staff's lives with these completely reckless decisions." 

Polanco's son, Vincent, told KTVU shortly after his death that his father was his best friend.

The sergeant's funeral was live-streamed throughout the prison; his ashes have been scattered on San Quentin grounds. 

In a statement, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it had not been served the lawsuit, but would "evaluate the details and determine next steps."

CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas added via email: "We extend our deepest condolences to Sgt. Polanco’s family, friends, and colleagues."

This is not the first COVID-related case against the prison system or San Quentin. 

MORE: Son believes prison sergeant contracted COVID-19 during botched Chino-to-San Quentin transfer

In March, the family of 61-year-old Daniel Ruiz sued state correction officials, blaming a botched transfer of infected inmates to San Quentin State Prison that killed 28 inmates and Polanco last year. 

Polanco's suit is similar to Ruiz's, in that it focuses on prison authorities' decision to transfer 122 inmates from the California Institute for Men near Los Angeles to the prison north of San Francisco in late May 2020, before they had been properly tested, which resulted in death and the further spreading of the virus. A total of 238 incarcerated people have died of coronavirus throughout the state's prison system since the outbreak began; 28 of them at San Quentin and 29 at CIM. 

Haddad, who is representing Ruiz's family, had previously said the transfer caused "the worst prison public health debacle in California history," a criticism echoed by some state lawmakers. The state’s inspector general in April similarly said the state’s misguided attempt to protect inmates from the coronavirus at the Southern California prison "caused a public health disaster" at San Quentin.

The current lawsuit alleges that San Quentin higher ups, including Warden Ronald Davis, are ultimately responsible for the safety of all employees and those incarcerated, including the preventing and handling of contagious disease outbreaks. And yet the management didn't carry out this responsibility, despite ample warnings and offers to help, the suit alleges. 

For example, a month after the transfer of inmates, a group public health experts voiced concerns that overcrowding together with physical risk factors at San Quentin created high risk for a "catastrophic super-spreader event." 

There was also a grave lack of personal protective equipment and masks at San Quentin, the suit alleges, to the point where inmates had to make inadequate masks out of cloth, and prison staff even refused to provide adequate masks and personal protective equipment to their own staff, even though masks and PPE were easily obtainable. 

Prison staff and inmates were commonly not wearing masks, or were wearing them improperly, according to the suit. And the prison authorities turned down an officer by an institute at Berkeley as well as a research laboratory at UCSF to provide free COVID-19 testing at San Quentin. 

This all greatly affected Polanco, the suit states.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, San Quentin faced staffing shortages, with several corrections officers calling in sick, sometimes out of fear.

But Polanco picked up the slack, the suit states, working additional hours, double-shifts, and often coming home to San Jose to sleep for a scant few hours before making the trip back up to the prison in Marin County.

Despite the long hours, Polanco told his wife, "it is my job" to protect the inmates and not let them die, the suit states.

When his wife begged him to stop working, he said he couldn't, because he had to  transport sick inmates in need of care, including inmates sick with COVID-19, to local hospitals. 

And at least on at least one occasion, Polanco told his wife that he had given his mask to another employee in need of one, due to the lack of proper gear. 

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez