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After a summer dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak and the wildfires, Prison Journalism Project contributing writer Joe Garcia called in this dispatch from San Quentin State Prison about a rare day in early September when the air felt crisp and clean.

Just two days earlier, he reported a smoky haze that lingered around the main yard. “My valuable outdoor exercise time now seems greatly diminished by the dry 90-degree heat and poor air quality,” he wrote. “That smell of burnt wood from all the nearby wildfires attacks my nostrils. An already short fitness routine becomes even more abbreviated as I struggle to maintain full, deep, healthy breathing.”

San Quentin has been the site of one of the largest coronavirus clusters with 2,529 total cases, including 290 staff members as of Oct. 5, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Over 70% of the prisoners have tested positive so far, and 28 of them have died.

Joe had been spared from getting the coronavirus in the first couple months of the pandemic, but after being under lockdown for weeks with a cellie who tested positive, he eventually came down with it himself and spent weeks quarantined in solitary confinement.

According to a data report by the New York Times, more than 218,000 people have been infected in U.S. jails and prisons so far. At least 1,265 inmates and correctional officers have died. Six out of the top ten worst outbreaks in prison the country have occurred at California institutions.

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.

Christopher Etienne

Educated as a documentary filmmaker at Columbia Journalism School and an Africana studies historian at Rutgers University, Christopher Etienne is a multimedia strategist who uses journalism and storytelling to shed light on injustice and raise awareness about social issues. As a first-generation Haitian in the inner cities of New Jersey, he experienced both poverty and incarceration. His background inspired him to seek ways to create meaningful change through his work with organizations such as NJ STEP, Rutgers, the Renaissance House, and Brooklyn CRAN Network.

Joe Garcia

Joe is a journalist at San Quentin State Prison and a staff reporter for San Quentin News. A San Francisco native with no connection to the carceral system before his arrest, Joe first believed prisons were filled with the worst people imaginable. But within his first week in Los Angeles County Jail, he found himself surrounded by people with rich, complex stories. Joe requested a transfer to San Quentin with the express purpose of working for the prisoner-run newspaper and now helps fellow prisoners find their voices as writers. In addition to prison publications, his work has appeared in the Washington Post and the Sacramento Bee.