Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

One night I was watching a horror movie in which a serial killer locks women in his basement, tortures them and eventually kills them. In the film, the killer is gunned down by the police, but his consciousness returns into a child who continues his reign of terror on a surviving victim. This horror movie got me to thinking, “Could COVID-19 strike twice?”

San Quentin State Prison (SQ) has been battling an explosive outbreak ever since 121 inmates were transferred here from a Chino prison back in May. The men came in untested and 15 had COVID-19. Before the transfer, SQ was clean. But now SQ is in the middle of its own horror show. Over 2,000 incarcerated people have contracted the COVID-19 virus as well as over 200 employees. One officer is in a coma. Fifteen incarcerated people are dead. Many are in outside hospitals. Some are on ventilators or gravely ill. The idea that COVID-19 could strike twice has many of us on edge.

This disaster zone is reminiscent of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Incarcerated people are being scattered throughout the facility like displaced refugees in N-95 masks; with all their earthly possessions in hand. Many are moving into tents, with grass floors, in the middle of a baseball field. Many are moving into the Prisons Industries warehouse to live amongst sewing machines. While many others are headed to the prison chapel to temporarily reside in God’s house among statues of Christ.

“It’s not like the house is on fire,” a SQ nurse told NBC Bay Area News. “The house has already burned to the ground.”

The incarcerated are now being served meals on wheels in compact cardboard trays. Some are living like the Amish using portable sinks, toilets and showers, and left without power. Others are receiving electricity through generators. This emergency has been going on for weeks. Doctors and nurses have been constantly racing throughout the facility in gowns, face masks, shields and gloves, dragging escort officers in tow, trying to prevent further loss of life. Medical personnel have been frequently checking incarcerated people’s pulse, temperatures, oxygen and blood pressure levels.

“The whole place has barely held together,” another SQ nurse told NBC Bay Area News. “By a hope and a prayer. “

This nightmare may never end. Hundreds of people in South Korea have been reporting that they caught COVID-19 twice. They tested positive, tested negative, and then tested positive again. They have also been reporting new bouts with fevers, coughs, sore throats and fatigue. While health care experts say these people are probably experiencing recurring symptoms from the first virus, right now, no one really knows for sure.

Humans develop antibodies to help fight foreign invaders. But nobody knows how long these COVID-19 antibodies will last. It takes on average two weeks to develop these antibodies, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But these antibodies may only last a few months. Therefore, just like the victim in the Prodigy, many people may have to face this killer again. 

And if history shows anything, it was the second wave of the 1918 flu epidemic that proved to be the most deadliest. The virus had mutated in a way where it was able to kill a healthy young man or woman within 24 hours of them showing symptoms. Almost 200,000 Americans died in one month.

While a COVID-19 vaccine is in development it is still in its early stages. None have proven to work safely yet. Many biotech companies, like Pfizer, are racing to develop one but don’t anticipate it will happen before 2021. By then about 100 million doses may be ready to distribute to the population. But questions remain. Who will get it? How long will this vaccine last, a few months, a few years, or a lifetime? Many are now looking to see how COVID-19 survivor’s own immune systems hold up?

American prisons could be ground zero when it comes to studying the impact of the virus. According to an article from the Marshall Project entitled, “What COVID-19 prison outbreaks could teach us about herd immunity,” prisons may be the key place to study the nature of this virus, how it transmits and how immunity to it works.

“There is sort of a natural experiment happening without anybody having to plan it that we should be able to get data from and try to understand,” said Nina Fefferman, a mathematical modeler at the University of Tennessee, according to the Marshall Project article.

But experiments done on prisoners invoke horrible images of past wrongs. In the Tuskegee Experiment of the 1930s, hundreds of black men were purposely infected with syphilis when there was no known cure. Many died. others went blind or insane, and the rest suffered lifelong ailments before their deaths. SQ’s own chief surgeon Dr. Leo Stanley experimented on prisoners from the 1930s to the 1950s. One involving testicle transplants. Most recently California prison officials were caught illegally sterilizing female prisoners against their will.

Because COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus, many believe scientists and government officials just might be desperate enough to encourage a second strike upon the prisons.

Governor Gavin Newsom has reluctantly agreed to release about 8,000 nonviolent offenders by August 1st in an attempt to create more space inside the prisons for social distancing. But critics say this number will not be good enough, which means many will remain in harm’s way, if this COVID-19 killer decides to strike again.

Incarcerated men have been crying and kicking and rattling their cell bars frequently and screaming “help us” since this outbreak began. Some have been suffering from nightmares, stress and anxiety from this constant adrenaline pumping heart racing emergency. Others have been suffering the pain and loss of close friends. Undoubtedly, this horrible outbreak has been mentally and physically taxing and the total damage that has been done is not yet clear. Half the population hasn’t been infected yet. Many refused to test. Thus, there is a strong likelihood this killer will be back.

 American people are fascinated by horror movies. Some of the greatest horror stories were repeats. In the movie “Friday the 13th” Jason came back from the dead about eight times. In the movie Halloween Michael Myers came back 11 times. Freddy Kruger came back seven times in the movie “Nightmare on Elm Street.”

But that’s all fiction. This is not a dream. Right now, SQ is faced with a real horror. Incarcerated men and women are trapped in prison cells, where there has already been so much death and carnage, waiting for COVID-19 to attack again.

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.

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Steve Brooks

Steve Brooks is a contributing writer for the Prison Journalism Project and San Quentin News, a newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California where he is incarcerated. He has been published in the San Francisco Public Press, Street Spirit, All of Us or None and Voice of Witness. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and won a 2020 Journalism Excellence Award by SPJ's Northern California chapter for two of his columns in PJP. Steve has completed two college degrees in liberal arts and social and behavioral sciences and plans to obtain a bachelor’s degree in sociology.