A quiet football morning suddenly turned into something entirely different on November 7.
“We got a new president, thank God,” I heard a Black voice proclaim from his cell in San Quentin’s South Block.
“What happened?” asked another man a few cells down.
“Joe Biden’s the President,” said the first voice. “It’s finally official. They are calling it on TV right now.”
I switched channels to CBS from Fox’s NCAA Pacific-12 opening day action. Yep, there was Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King sharing the news with the American public. Pennsylvania finally announced an insurmountable lead in voting numbers for the Biden-Harris ticket.
“Trump won, damn it all!” yelled a White guy from his cell. “They stole that election.”
One of his neighbors was quick to ask him, “Are you serious, dog?”
“Nah, I’m just playing,” said the White guy, laughing. “But Trump ain’t leaving the White House without a fight. You know what an idiot he is.”
Yeah,” said the neighbor. “He’s gonna get all the guns out and try to stand his ground in there. He got Russian spies ready to fight with him.”
“It don’t matter what that crazy motherfucka wanna try and do,” said the Black voice. “Come January, he’s outta there. They’ll go in and drag his ass out if they have to.”
Minutes later, a different Black prisoner mused, “I’m sure gonna miss ol’ boy, though. Trump kept that shit entertaining — even if he was always wrong.”
In accordance with the way it works right now inside San Quentin, it was a “down” day for us in South Block’s Badger section. We were all locked in our cells for the day, each person housed in a cell by ourselves. Tomorrow, they’ll open our doors for showers and yard, followed by another such down day. That’s the current COVID-19 program in here — one day on, one day off.
Incarcerated porters who live in the unit help deliver our meals to the cell and push around pay phones on wheels. We pull the headset in through our tray slot and thrust a hand out to awkwardly dial. But it’s great that the phones stay accessible even though we can’t leave our cells. It’s way better for COVID-19 safety and social distancing as long as you disinfect it between each use. Other units have actual stationary phone booths. Remember those? They can’t get out to call anyone on their down days.
With no activity beyond the confines of our cells, guys frequently talk with their neighbors. They might even yell back and forth with friends on different tiers and many cells away.
Later that night after President-elect Biden’s powerful first speech, and as the Clemson/Notre Dame game went into double overtime, I could hear lots of guys asking, “Hey, what time is Saturday Night Live? Does anybody know when it comes on?” These folks don’t normally watch SNL, but it was a special night in America — and, likewise, in San Quentin.
Along with the rest of the nation, we had all waited patiently for this moment when enough votes had been counted and the winner declared. We’d watched the celebratory street scenes from all the major and local cities.
Many of us now stayed up to see Dave Chappelle hit his own home run with a monologue both hilariously comedic and socially poignant.
“That dude’s more racist than I am,” I heard a White guy tell his buddy during the commercial break. “But I love him. He’s funny as fuck.”
While we all ride out the COVID-19 storm together inside these walls, things are beginning to look a bit brighter. Earlier in the week, California voters approved voting rights for paroled former felons. We all hope to be one of those someday. Even more significantly, Proposition 20 failed by a large margin. Its passage would have revoked all sorts of parole reform from previous years.
COVID-19, sheltering in place and prison isolation has forced us to reflect deeply on the future and its possibilities. At least now, for the moment, we can see hope for ourselves – and hope for the America we all dream of reentering.
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.