Prison guard’s COVID death resulted from transfer of infected inmates, family alleges

San Quentin guard Sgt. Gilbert Polanco in uniform in a family photo
San Quentin guard Sgt. Gilbert Polanco died after getting COVID-19 on the job, his family claims.
(Family photo)

The family of a San Quentin prison guard who died of COVID-19 claim in a recently filed lawsuit that his death, along with 28 others, resulted from the botched transfer of infected inmates from a Southern California prison in May 2020.

Correctional Sgt. Gilbert Polanco, a 55-year-old father of two, died less than three months after a bus, dubbed “the beast” by San Quentin inmates, arrived at the prison with 121 inmates from the outbreak-ridden California Institution for Men at Chino, according to the federal lawsuit filed against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

More than 2,200 inmates and 490 staff at San Quentin would be infected in what a state inspector general called “a public health disaster.” The inspector general concluded that state prison officials hastily transferred the infected inmates despite the warnings of frontline healthcare workers.

The lawsuit is the first federal civil rights lawsuit filed against state officials on behalf of an affected family. It alleges that Polanco’s constitutional rights were violated, that the CDCR and the prison system healthcare service violated the Americans With Disabilities Act, and that their negligence at California’s oldest prison inflicted emotional distress on Polanco’s family.


“COVID-19 obviously has affected our entire society, but the San Quentin COVID disaster was entirely preventable,” said attorney Michael Haddad. “It was created by a culture of callousness in CDCR that led officials to subject to their own employees and the inmates in their care to greatly increased danger.”

Dana Simas, a corrections spokeswoman in a statement said, “CDCR has not been served with the lawsuit, but we will evaluate the details and determine next steps. We extend our deepest condolences to Sgt. Polanco’s family, friends, and colleagues.”

The transfer came after officials decided to move the inmates from Chino prison’s barracks-style housing, where the virus had infected more than 600 inmates and killed nine. Internal emails cited by the inspector general show that medical staff raised alarms before the transfer, saying that some of the inmates had not been tested in nearly a month and therefore could be infected.

Two inmates arrived at San Quentin with symptoms. The other incoming inmates were housed in a unit that lacked solid doors, which allowed air to flow from their cells, according to the inspector general’s investigation. Within days of the transfer, 14 transferred inmates tested positive and eventually 91 became infected, according to the inspector general.

“The defendants violated the most basic legal requirements like providing their employees N95 respirators,” said Julia Sherwin, another attorney for Polanco family. “They violated basic common sense like testing the Chino inmates before moving them to San Quentin and quarantining them from the rest of the population upon arrival.”

Cal-OSHA found state prison officials guilty of numerous serious workplace safety violations, many of them willful. the lawsuit noted.

“Patricia should have been planning to celebrate her 30th wedding anniversary with her soulmate, and instead had to plan his memorial service. She and her children will hold the state and every decision maker in this debacle accountable,” Sherwin said.


“I want to hold people accountable,” said Patricia Polanco. Polanco said her husband was at high risk of infection because he suffered from diabetes. He had to work double shifts because colleagues had quit in part due to a shortage of masks inside the prison, she said.

The funeral for Polanco was live-streamed throughout the prison. Then Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Ralph Diaz called him “an example of the best of CDCR” and California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered that the Capitol flag be flown at half-staff.