“They Want to Do Me In”: The Prisoner Who Fought COVID Overcrowding

    In May, as COVID-19 loomed over incarcerated people across the country, Ivan Von Staich filed an administrative grievance to transfer out of the notoriously overcrowded 168-year-old San Quentin State Prison. In October, as a result, an appeals court ordered San Quentin to reduce its prison population by 50 percent. In November, in his first interview on his decision and its aftermath, Von Staich, 64, said prison officials have harassed him and threatened his life.

    “I don’t give a fuck about a court order,” a captain said shortly after the court ruling, according to Von Staich. Let’s call him Captain America, or Capt. A for short. “We can do what we want to you. You’re destroying our whole prison.” 

    “You think you’re going to get money out of this,” Von Staich quoted Capt. A telling him. “You got to live to get paid.”

    The Court of Appeal ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to transfer Von Staich immediately, and ordered San Quentin to reduce its prison population to a maximum of 1,775 people—down from roughly double that in June 2020. The court also found that the CDCR demonstrated “deliberate indifference to the risk of substantial harm to [Von Staich], whose age made him vulnerable to COVID-19.” 

    “We agree that CDCR’s deliberate indifference to the risk of substantial harm to [Von Staich] necessarily extends to other similarly situated San Quentin inmates,” the court stated. “The immediate need is for a reduction of the San Quentin inmate population that will allow sufficient physical distancing among the inmates who remain.” 

    That day, Von Staich was a hero.

    When prisoners in West Block first learned about the court’s order on the evening news, a wave of excited shouts swept through the building. That day, Von Staich was a hero. He had slain the beast from inside its belly. But he also knew the possible consequences of his victory.

    “My officers have to move!” Von Staich said Capt. A screamed at him. Because prisons must maintain a certain ratio of officers to prisoners, a population reduction at San Quentin may require some officers to transfer to other facilities.

    Von Staich said that during his classification hearing, his correctional counselor furiously threw his transfer papers at him, later taking the documents to him in his cell and telling him he had 30 days to appeal. By then, shortly after our interview, he was packed and ready for transfer to an unknown destination. 

     

    Retaliation

    “This was a disaster waiting to happen,” Von Staich said of COVID’s potential to ravage the overcrowded San Quentin prisoners. 

    Since he was first incarcerated in 1986on charges, including second-degree murder, which he disputesVon Staich has served time at California State Prison, Corcoran; California State Prison, Sacramento; California Institution for Men; Pleasant Valley State Prison, Soledad State Prison; and California Men’s Colony. Now in his fourth decade of incarceration, Von Staich was ready to be transferred out of San Quentin. “But I want to be in a place with harmony and peace.”

    When the pandemic hit in 2020, he first exhausted his administrative remedies within the CDCR before filing a petition in superior court “seeking relief for himself and similarly situated inmates from increased COVID-19 risks from overcrowding at San Quentin State Prison,” court records show.

    “They want to do me in.” 

    Von Staich said his first bout with retaliation at the prison came in early August, when he was placed in solitary confinement—“the hole,” formally known as “administrative segregation”—for 35 days. On October 16, Board of Parole Hearings found him suitable for release from prison. Four days later, the Court of Appeal ruled in his favor, stipulating that he should be transferred “to a suitable quarantine location.” 

    But he didn’t think that transfer would come. “They want to do me in.” 

    Capt. A is well-known by prisoners in the block where Von Staich was housed—including myself—for his ill-tempered behavior and bellicose management style. “Technically, I think he’s talking shit, but he’s still going to mess over me,” said Von Staich. “At least I stood my ground. And I’m still not going to back down.” 

    “We got something for you,” Capt. A would threaten, according to Von Staich. Other prison officials in the hearing tacitly endorsed the threats and verbal abuse. When Von Staich tried to speak, he was told, “Shut your mouth.” He’d had some indication that he might be headed to California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California, to quarantine from COVID. But he said his counselor made excuses for why he couldn’t transfer there.

    To override his custody and security level, he said special security officers from San Quentin’s Institutional Services Unit—the “goon squad” in prison vernacular—asked him to sign a waiver to justify sending him to Corcoran State Prison, Level IV Maximum Security. He refused.

    CDCR denied Von Staich’s claims of retaliation. “Inmate Ivan Von Staich was never placed in segregated housing due to disciplinary or punitive reasons,” CDCR press officer Terry Hardy wrote to Filter. “CDCR refutes any allegations of retaliation by San Quentin State Prison staff against Von Staich. We take the health and safety of the incarcerated population very seriously and will continue to implement robust measures to mitigate spread of COVID-19, in alignment with our primary mission of public safety.”

    I interviewed Von Staich in San Quentin, in late October and early November, shortly before he was transferred into Corcoran. In early December, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation released him from state custody, according to the CDCR. However, as of February 2021, public records show him under federal custody. Those with knowledge of the situation say he was incarcerated again due to a parole hold that predates the trial that led to his incarceration in 1986. His attorneys are working to get the hold lifted. 

     

    A History of Abuse

    “The only thing they can do to me now is torture me while they have me,” Von Staich told me before he was transferred. His look of concern had been visible as he waited to use a prison telephone to make a collect call to his appeal attorney. He was anxious about his safety because of the possibility of an override to the Level IV maximum-security prison in Corcoran.

    “I’ve already experienced their Green Wall,” he said, referencing an understanding between prison staff that they can abuse their power over prisoners. The last time he was at Corcoran, correctional officers surrounded him and threatened him with a beating for refusing to push a cart at a job assignment.

    Corcoran is infamous for the brutal way in which correctional officers treated prisoners in its security housing unit in the 1990s. Officers pitted rival gang members against each other in gladiator-style fights, placing bets on who would win and then using deadly force to stop the battles, killing and maiming prisoners.

    “A lot of people are going to be released because of you—they don’t deserve to go home.” 

    Corcoran has had its own COVID-19 outbreak. “Yet, the CDCR wants to send me there,” he said. According to Von Staich, Capt. A had come from Corcoran. 

    “This is far from over,” he continued. At Corcoran, Capt. A could “have his buddies break my fingers and typewriter.”

    Von Staich was also worried his personal property would be destroyed or “lost” during his transfer. A self-taught jailhouse lawyer, he described himself as not the best orator. But once he shifts into “legal mode,” he said, he knows how to navigate the law with his well-worn Brother ML 500 typewriter. Legal victories, however, come at a high price for many incarcerated litigants. Threats and retaliation are only the beginning.

    “No one in the history of the United States has gotten an appellate court to say we committed ‘deliberate indifference,'” Von Staich said Capt. A told him at his hearing. “A lot of people are going to be released because of you—they don’t deserve to go home.” 

     

    Uncertain Future

    Two days after our initial interview, Von Staich returned to say goodbye. Capt. A appeared to have followed through on his threat. “I’m going back to ad-seg, on lockdown,” he said. He wasn’t sure which of the CDCR’s 35 prisons awaited him; San Quentin officials wouldn’t tell him. 

    “Von Staich, to the desk,” rang out over the public address system. “Von Staich, to the desk.” He wasn’t taken away in handcuffs, so he could have been destined for a holding cell first, pending the result of a COVID test. In August, CDCR adopted a “Movement Matrix” requiring prisoners be quarantined and COVID-tested when transferred.

    “They’re going to make their move on me when I get on the bus,” Von Staich said. “If I end up dead, at least I talked to somebody. As soon as you hear I’m out of here, you can unleash the fire (this story) on them.”

     


     

    Photograph via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

    • Kevin Sawyer

      Kevin is the associate editor for San Quentin News and a member of the Society of the Professional Journalists (SPJ). His work has appeared in the Guardian, San Francisco Chronicle and numerous other publications. He is currently incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison, California.

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