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“Look over the tier real quick. See anybody on the phones right now?” I asked my friend King. I’d been locked in my cell all morning, wondering why no officers came by to sign me up for phone time. It was June 20.

On bright days like this, sunlight filters through the building’s large opaque windows to offer a bit of its vibrance onto the upper tiers. King roamed San Quentin’s North Block after being let out to shower. Whenever time permits, he’ll stop by my cell to check in. I try and do the same.

“There ain’t nobody on them damn phones,” King said while peering over the rails at the dozen pay booths below. “We just went on some new quarantine program. You see how long it took them to run the showers for us.”

“The word is that they took a guy out of here earlier after he tested positive. This shit is real now.”

News Travels Fast

News travels fast in prison — be it real, fake or any shade in between. Incarcerated people know all too well the value of timely information. We pass along whatever fragments we can get of the big picture. When you’re stuck in a cell most of the day, you’ll need to rely on other guys’ eyes and ears — and also their interpretation of the things they see and hear — to figure out what’s really going on.

As a concerned prisoner and journalist, I told King to go gather any info he could about the situation. He popped back up in front of my cell within minutes.

“You know who Danny the painter is? The White guy?” he asked me.

I sure didn’t.

“Well, an Asian that lives on the same tier as that dude — that’s who they took out today. That’s all the crumbs I could scrape up for you. You’ll have to move some other chess pieces to get the full scoop. I’m gone.” He hurried off to his tier to get locked back up.

Right now during San Quentin’s COVID-19 modified program, all sorts of “critical” incarcerated workers continue to report daily to their institutional job assignments. I’m talking about Healthcare Facilities Maintenance (HFM), crew members, office clerks, Prison Industries Authority (PIA) employees and, perhaps the most essential of all, kitchen workers — the guys who prepare our meals and keep the trays, pots and pans clean.

On any given day throughout the prison, these workers interact with their supervisors — the officers, free staff and administration. They ask questions. They deduce and infer answers. They handle paperwork. They overhear, listen and participate in various conversations.

And when they return to their housing units, of course these critical workers share whatever they’ve learned with their buddies, their cellies, their neighbors — their community.

As a so-called incarcerated journalist, I’m by no means considered a critical worker. But that’s okay. Word still gets around to me. I have my sources. I hear things. I ask my own questions.

A Transfer of Covid-Positive Prisoners

The latest San Quentin buzz involves a bunch of confirmed COVID-19 positive prisoners who were transferred here from a known viral hotspot, the California Institute for Men (CIM). Prior to this influx, we all believed we were somewhat safe and secure from the pandemic’s tentacles — so long as officers and other staff didn’t bring the virus in with them. No outside visitors or volunteers have been allowed in since mid-March.

“San Quentin administration didn’t want those guys sent here at all,” said a clerk who works in SQ’s Reception Center, which mostly processes new arrivals entering the prison system from county jails. “CDCR [the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations] did that on their own.

“My bosses are all pissed at Sacramento for forcing that decision and putting everyone here at risk.”

SQ staff issued each of us one skimpy bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer in April, shortly followed by several cloth face masks. Multiple times throughout the day now, they announce over the loudspeakers that we need to wear a mask at all times outside our cells, but most guys seem to only wear them when following the rules in front of officers. Social distancing is but a pipedream concept along North Block’s four-foot-wide walkways and narrow staircases—let alone its cramped two-man cells.

“Why should we wear that shit when y’all just bringing sick mothafuckas in here from somewhere else?” a man yelled out his cell one June morning in response to the now standard announcement.

Initial Rumors

The rumor of a Patient Zero within North Block on June 20 ignited some of our worst fears. The truth on that day, however, was that one resident merely exhibited symptoms and got quarantined pending evaluative testing.

The initial number of confirmed positive cases during the first week of June was reported to be 14 individuals out of the 125 arrivals from CIM. They were housed and quarantined in the SQ Adjustment Center (AC), the unit historically reserved only for Death Row’s most noncompliant residents. But the AC soon proved far too small to contain the rampant exponential surge in confirmed positives — which stands well over 450 as of June 25. At least 50 officers and staff have tested positive as well. These numbers will surely rise before this ink even dries.

Due to the suspicious case on June 20, medical staff now stop by every North Block cell to conduct mandatory temperature checks. They also ask us if we’re experiencing any telltale symptoms. Most of us don’t want to admit anything unless we’re sick enough to require medical attention.

SQ Public Health workers set up a test center outside North Block on June 22 and 23. One by one, we all took turns getting our throats and sinuses swabbed.

“It’s all bad in here,” one of the kitchen workers told me when he came back from his early morning shift on June 23. “There’s like at least ten dudes in here right now with quarantine notices posted on their cells.

“I don’t even want to go to work no more.”

None of us completely understands the exact criteria for quarantine. One high temperature may be enough, or maybe it depends on how adamantly we profess symptoms. Almost everyone feels a little bit off, both physically and psychologically—loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, hints of a headache. With the coronavirus seemingly all around us, is the threat of infection now preying on our imaginations?

Anthony Ammons works on HFM’s Strike Team, a group of prisoners vocationally certified to clean and disinfect biohazardous materials. They remain on call 24/7 for whenever SQ medical needs their services. It’s an exceptionally busy time, as they repeatedly don hazmat suits all throughout each day and enter COVID-19 contaminated areas.

“Some of us don’t want to do it anymore,” Ammons told me. “They’re scared of catching it. I’ll still do it, because I want to help keep our community safe. But I sure don’t want to catch it my damn self, either.”

A warden’s memorandum dated June 10 stated, “CDCR has received a court order to test all San Quentin staff for COVID-19.” The memo outlined a two-stage plan in which Stage 1 entailed testing “All staff believed to have been in direct contact with the new arrivals that tested positive for COVID-19 during processing and arrival,” on June 11. Stage 2 outlined all other SQ staff to complete testing on or before June 15.

“There’s still no deaths here,” Ammons said on June 20. “But there’s one guy in the hospital on a ventilator.”

I asked him how work’s been going for him lately.

“It’s not good right now. Everyone’s on edge,” he said. “Different officers keep changing the rules on us. We’re supposed to wait 24 hours before going in to clean, but some officers say to only wait an hour.”

Ammons added that one of his co-workers was threatened with being written up because he didn’t want to go in after only 45 minutes.

“A lieutenant was yelling at him to just get in there and clean,” he said. “They want to send us into where they won’t go themselves. Before COVID, only Death Row inmates were ever allowed in the AC. It’s the first time in history we’ve gone in there.”

Waiting for Test Results

After three months of relative peace, we now wait for our test results. Officers began calling out names here and there over the last few days. “Pack up all your property.” We all know what that means — you’re getting rehoused to the quarantine unit.

Some of the names are guys who’ve been running around the building all this time with their masks under their chins, guys who’ve used the phones, worked in the kitchen, showered right alongside any of us. Who, what, where and how did they contract the coronavirus? How many others have they unwittingly infected? Who will be SQ’s first casualty?



Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Joe Garcia is a journalist and PJP correspondent incarcerated in California. Garcia was previously a staff writer and the chair of the Journalism Guild for San Quentin News. In addition to prison publications, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Washington Post and the Sacramento Bee.