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Photo by Jonathan Chiu

“Rankin, come to the gate,” a young corrections officer (CO) said as he took out his keys and double-locked our cell door on Saturday morning on June 28. Keying the door meant that when the bar was pulled to release everyone else on the tier from their cells, we would still be locked in.

“Give me a second,” said Rankin, a 53-year-old diabetic and my latest cellie. “I’m on the toilet.”

When I heard the lock clank, I knew the guard came to deliver the results of the COVID-19 test we took earlier in the week on Tuesday. After North Block at San Quentin State Prison went on quarantine on June 20, the medical staff had decided to test the whole cell block. Keying us in was a bad sign.

The first half of the building was tested on June 22. And since then, dozens of men’s names and cell numbers had been called over a PA system to move to quarantine. Among the names I heard were two people I know well, Juan Haines, senior editor of San Quentin News and Stephen “Rhashiyd” Zinnamon, sound designer for Ear Hustle. According to news reports, they were two out of 613 positive COVID-19 cases with 89 staff members at San Quentin. Would I be next?

As the CO leaned on the rail across from our cell door and waited for Rankin, I sat on the top bunk wondering why he hadn’t talked to me in the meantime. A pounding headache and sneeze, plus the feeling that my nasal passage was closing, plagued me for five days straight, so I was expecting to hear that I tested positive. I hadn’t reported how I felt because headaches and sneezing weren’t on the list of coronavirus symptoms. And the last thing I wanted was to be sent to the isolation unit where the outbreak started and get exposed to COVID-19. Since the medical staff was testing everybody anyway, I figured the results would dictate what happens next.

“Okay, what’s up,” Rankin said as he washed his hands.

“You tested positive for COVID-19,” the CO said. “At this rate, there are so many cases we probably won’t move you.”

“But I don’t have any symptoms — I had a cough and that was it.”

“What about me? Thomas,” I jumped in. We can’t social distance inside a cell, and his only symptom was a slight cough. If he tested positive, I figured with my headache, I must be positive, too.

“You’re not on the list,” the CO said. “You must have tested negative.”

“How many people are on the list?”


As the CO walked away, I realized that if I didn’t have COVID-19 now, leaving me locked in with someone who does would ensure I will soon enough. Hell, with the cell blocks being so overcrowded, we were all going to get exposed to the deadly disease.

Overall, the California prison system is populated at about 141 percent of design capacity. However, in the North Block, the building was filled to about 186 percent capacity. Two men occupied nearly every 6 x 9 cell that was designed for one person at best.

In my opinion, packed cell blocks aren’t that much safer than dorms. There is nothing preventing bodily droplets from flying out of the cells through the bars, which are covered with a grill filled with diamond-shaped holes. The circulation in the building is horrible.

Moreover, when we exit the cells for showers, chow, yard, or phones, an instant line forms with about 75 people barely two feet apart. If surgical masks are only 67 percent effective protection, our cloth masks might be 50 percent effective at best.

When the shelter-in-cell began on March 18, the first thing the administration did was transfer 25 younger men from North Block to H-Unit (a dorm area) swapping in older men in an attempt to keep them safe. On April 23, 40 more people from dorm areas were moved to North Block. The population in the dorms were reduced from 200 people down to 100, while North Block remained packed.

Still, no incarcerated people tested positive for COVID-19 at San Quentin until shortly after 128 men were transferred in from Chino State Prison on May 3. There was already a COVID-19 outbreak at Chino with hundreds of cases. From what I heard, the older men were tested before they left Chino, but they remained in the general population for three weeks before being transferred. At San Quentin, they were isolated and retested for coronavirus, and 15 were positive. From there, the virus spread around the cell blocks of San Quentin, skyrocketing in a few weeks to hundreds of infected well beyond the Chino group.

When the guys from Chino arrived, my cellie was Jeff Brown, a worker in the receiving and release room. Brown worked from 12 p.m to 4 a.m. unloading property from transportation buses. He was tested for COVID-19 and the results were negative. But suddenly, a bottom bunk was needed on a lower tier for an elderly person that came up from H-Unit. Brown was moved to cell 580 to make room for Rankin, who required a lower bunk.

So I was locked in this cell with Rankin, hoping by some miracle that I don’t catch or already have COVID-19. I also prayed I wouldn’t spread the disease to others like Alfred King, a 68-year-old who has been incarcerated for almost 40 years. He’s a great chef who keeps stopping by to check on me, even though I keep telling him to stay away from my cell, at least until they move my current cellie.

After Rankin found out he tested positive that Saturday, night came and went. He woke up on the bunk right under me. His property was packed and stacked by the gate. That morning, I heard about the first COVID-19 death at San Quentin. He was a guy in the East Block. Around count time, a female voice came over the PA system and said, “All remaining moves are cancelled. You won’t be moving today.”

Prior to that, well over a hundred people had already been sent from North Block to isolation, leaving dozens of empty cells. That Sunday night, I watched the BET Awards on a 15-inch flat-screen TV from my bunk, and I heard Keedron Bryant sing, “I just want to live. God please protect me.”

His words resonated more than ever before. I live in daily fear, begging God to protect me and all these old fools, who were decades past their earliest release dates. I questioned whether we deserved this potential death penalty. Under California Government Code 8658, the prison system can release people if they can’t keep us safe. Apart from three commutations, I haven’t heard of anyone getting released early from San Quentin so far unless they were going home soon anyway.

On Monday morning, California Governor Gavin Newsom reported in a news conference that San Quentin had 1,011 positive cases of COVID-19. He also spoke about how 42% of the prison’s population was medically vulnerable to the disease. He mentioned releasing people convicted of non-violent crimes who were 180 days away from going home, had a place to parole, and hadn’t tested positive for the coronavirus.

Later that day, the number of positive cases at San Quentin jumped to 1,021. On the news, I saw tents being prepared on the yard for patients. Since June 28, medical staff had been going from cell to cell twice a day to take temperatures and put a device on our finger that took our pulse and measured oxygen levels.

With each shift change, our routine varied. We went from being locked in the cell with meals brought to us to being let out of our cells to pick up our food trays and take them back to our cell. On Monday evening, we were allowed to shower for the first time in five days, and I noticed people who tested positive showering next to people who tested negative. I showered wearing my mask, hoping that would keep me from potentially catching or spreading the disease.

On Tuesday morning, my headache was gone and my nasal passage felt like it was returning to normal. It looks like I’ll probably survive. Others who tested positive say they don’t have any symptoms. I heard one of my neighbors was in an outside hospital on a respirator.

It’s strange that the virus is deadly to some and harmless to others. At this point, we are all going to catch COVID-19. With all the old people serving time at San Quentin, many are going to die because we’d rather keep harmless old fools locked in a Petri dish with COVID-19 than grant them another chance at life.

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.

Rahsaan “New York” Thomas is a journalist, co-host of the podcast Ear Hustle and former staff writer for the San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he was incarcerated. His work has also appeared in The Marshall Project, Life of the Law, The Beat Within, and in the Missouri Review series Literature on Lockdown. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the co-founder of Prison Renaissance.