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The Mercury News / Julia Prodis Sulek

SAN JOSE — The family of the San Quentin prison guard who died last summer from COVID-19 after a botched transfer of infected inmates from another prison filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Tuesday against state prison officials, blaming them for a “culture of callousness” that led to one of the largest outbreaks in the country and 29 deaths.

“I want to hold people accountable and responsible, but mainly get justice for him,” said Patricia Polanco, the widow of 55-year-old Sgt. Gilbert Polanco, who died a year ago. Twenty-eight San Quentin inmates also perished after the May 2020 outbreak.

The lawsuit comes six months after a scathing report from the state Office of the Inspector General found that the transfer of 122 inmates from a Chino prison by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was “deeply flawed.”

Not only were inmates not tested for weeks before the transfer, but they were packed onto five buses and not quarantined once they arrived. The infection raced through the antiquated facility, which still uses open-air prison bars to separate cells. Before the transfer, San Quentin had no reported COVID cases.

The inspector general report also blamed a prison health care executive in Chino for explicitly ordering that the inmates not be retested the day before the transfers.

The May 30, 2020, transfer occurred at the height of shelter-in-place lockdown orders across the state.

During a news conference Tuesday, the lawyers representing Polanco’s widow and two grown children, Selena and Vincent, called his death a preventable tragedy and the result of “disastrous choices.”

“They created a COVID cesspool and required their inmates and employees to marinate in it,” said lawyer Julia Sherwin from Oakland-based Haddad & Sherwin, which filed the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, which names San Quentin Warden Ronald Davis and others, appears to be the first federal lawsuit against the state of California for a COVID-related death of a state employee. The firm has filed two other lawsuits on behalf of families of inmates who perished.

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