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In early September, prisoners at San Quentin’s North Block continued to yield first time positive COVID-19 test results.

“It’s not a very reliable test,” one SQ nurse said about the self-administered swabs now being used. “It simply detects if any virus particles are present in your nostrils, but they could have come from the air or somewhere else and just landed there. … It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re sick or infectious.”

Not very reliable? These small number of newly positive cases get promptly removed from the unit and placed into quarantine. They then wait 21 days to be cleared of any possible symptoms before being designated “positive-resolved,” meaning they’re safe from infecting others.

“The medical lady’s always at my work, lecturing us on maintaining proper PPE (personal protective equipment),” an incarcerated kitchen worker explained. “She keeps telling us to stay cautious and not let our guard down, that the coronavirus is still alive here. It’s still around.”

SQ prisoners who don’t refuse testing and continually never test positive get designated “true negative.” They’re expected to test at least once each week.

“Being negative is the worst thing to be in here,” said a true negative who’s also been a valued kitchen worker for years. “I’m not allowed to go back to work right now, but everyone else can.

“I’m glad I never got sick, but I’d rather have gotten over the virus and had my shit resolved.”

Other true negatives, however, manage to slip through the cracks and report to job assignments elsewhere.

“I’ve been tested 17 times so far, all negative. I was surprised when they called me to work,” said a non-kitchen critical worker. “When I showed up, my supervisor was like, ‘You are positive-resolved, aren’t you?’

“And I told him, ‘Yeah, sure.’ Am I really gonna tell on myself? I wanna work. I hope they don’t figure it out.”

San Quentin seems to be moving toward a bubbled snapshot of so-called herd immunity. Nearly 70% of the incarcerated population are long since positive and resolved. 

“It’s like they want to see us all eventually have a positive result and get resolved,” said a North Block resident who takes every test and remains true negative. “I’ve never felt sick or had any symptoms, but almost everyone around me has tested positive.”

Another prisoner recalled how bad the outbreak in North Block was at one point in July. “Guys were fallin’ out non-stop, alarms going off all day every day,” he said. “That’s all died down for now, but with the flu season on the way, it’s just going to start up again.”

SQ’s Adjustment Center (AC), the longtime Hole for Death Row inmates, now serves as a staging area for prisoners slated to be transferred to other state facilities. They’ll remain housed in the AC for a 14-day safety period before they’re medically cleared and shipped out.

“The administration wants to reopen our program in phases,” one Inmate Advisory Council representative said. “We were about to go from phase one to phase two, but the new positive cases set that plan back at least two weeks.

“That’s what they’re telling us right now, anyway.”

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.