Photo by Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz on Unsplash

I woke up early on Jan. 20, invigorated with a renewed sense of optimism and hope. It was Inauguration Day, and our country was about to begin a much needed new political era. But more importantly for me, a San Quentin State Prison (SQ) officer had announced the previous night that COVID-19 vaccinations would start at 8 a.m. 

I couldn’t be more ready to get vaccinated against the deadly coronavirus. 

Back in June and July, COVID-19 had crept its way into my body and attacked my senses for two scary weeks — something I’d never wish upon anyone. I know these first vaccines are no cure-all or a complete safeguard against reinfection, but getting that shot into my arm would certainly be a step in the right direction. 

Unfortunately, that announcement failed to mention that only about two dozen folks in my unit would be offered COVID-19 vaccination at this time — and I wasn’t one of them. 

Already one of the world’s hardest COVID-19 impacted populations, SQ’s incarcerated community now faces a slow and sporadic vaccine rollout. Much like the rest of the nation, we wait in uncertainty while others around us are given a level of safety and protection.

“I’m indifferent about this whole vaccine thing,” said my 67-year old buddy, Charles Crowe, who was in the first group escorted to the chapel for his shot. “But why not?”

Vaccinations were made available to all SQ officers and outside staff in December — but not required. An officer in my unit who took his shot estimated that about half of his coworkers have chosen to take the vaccine. 

Once the people who enter and leave the prison each day were taken care of, officials from SQ Public Health officials began offering limited vaccine doses to prisoners with severe underlying health conditions and those aged 65 or older. A select handful of extremely at-risk prisoners had quietly been pulled out several days prior to Crowe’s group being offered COVID-19 shots. 

SQ Public Health ranks prisoners based on their medical records and gives them a weighted risk score to determine vaccine priority. 

I’m 51 years old and in relatively good health now after recovering from COVID-19, So I’m sure I’ll be one of the last folks to get offered vaccination inside San Quentin. 

The good news was that I got to see President Joe Biden and VP Kamala Harris being sworn into office. I’m no fan of Garth Brook’s music, but I enjoyed seeing him gleefully and COVID-19-inappropriately hugging Obama and other dignitaries from both parties. 

COVID-19 vaccination or Amanda Gorman’s live reading of “The Hill We Climb?” SQ Public Health made that decision for me.

As January came to a close, the next round of vaccinations focused on prisoners who had never tested positive for the virus and were COVID-19-free. 

Just like the outside world, many SQ residents view the COVID-19 vaccine with skepticism and concern about its health risks and overall efficacy. 

“I refused at first because I didn’t trust it,” said Derrick Holloway, a 50-year-old prisoner, who was at higher risk because he was overweight and had high blood pressure. He said he went ahead with it after learning more about it.

“They came back that night and offered it to me again,” he said.  “They said the doses were going to expire, and they didn’t want any to go to waste.” 

Holloway received the Moderna vaccine on Jan. 26. “It felt like I had the flu for a good three days afterwards, but I’m all right now,” he said. 

Some prisoners have turned it down even when they have been offered it. Duane Gillepsie, a 20-year-old who was offered the vaccine because he had never tested positive, was one of them. 

“It’s too new. We don’t know what’s really in there and going into our bodies,” he said. “I don’t want to get brain cancer or something later on. I never take flu shots or any of that stuff.”

Gillespie said that he was sick with COVID-19 during the worst of the prison’s outbreak, but it had happened between tests where his results remained negative. Many others like him without officially recorded data of their infection, have been categorized as “true negatives.”

There are also officers who have refused vaccination, making it difficult to fully resolve the COVID-19 situation. 

One SQ officer told me she would never get vaccinated. “When I had COVID-19 in the summer, it really hit me hard,” she said. “I still don’t feel 100%, and all the weird side effects make things worse for me.”

Some like 28-year-old Travis Vales have a family history of severe allergic reactions to antibiotics like penicillin. But he said he was tempted to get it anyway because he heard that the prison might start allowing contact visits again for those who were vaccinated.

Part of the concern is the threat of variants and mutations that could lead to another huge viral outbreak. Vales said officers and outside staff should be free to make their own choice about getting vaccinated, but he also pointed out the risk of unvaccinated people bringing in a new strain from outside. 

No new prisoners have been transferred into the prison since the devastating mistake in May, when the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation inadvertently transferred prisoners with COVID-19 into SQ, triggering one of the biggest outbreaks in the country. 

A California court ruling last fall had ordered that the prison cut its population by half, but involuntary transfers out of San Quentin have been placed on hold, pending upcoming court rulings. 

Some prisoners, however, are being released as a result, and they have been prioritized. 

Lee L. Xiouq, who is being released on parole on Feb. 2, received his first dose on Jan. 20 even though he is only 40 years old and contracted COVID-19 in July. 

“They gave me this card with the date of my first shot,” said Xiouq, “They said I can use it as a voucher to get my second dose out there somewhere in four weeks.”

Robert Lee, who is 63 years old and has tested positive for the coronavirus multiple times, is set to be released in April, but he has so far not made the cut for the first few rounds of vaccination, perhaps because he has no underlying health conditions. 

“San Quentin gave me COVID-19 three damn times already since June. Hurry up with that vaccine,” he said. 

Whenever medical staff has come by our cells to offer us COVID-19 testing, I’d decline because I don’t want a false positive result that would get me quarantined. 

Now I say, “No, thank you — I want a COVID-19 shot! When’s that going to happen for me?”

One nurse estimated that every San Quentin prisoner would likely be offered vaccination by the end of February. 

It brings to mind what Amanda Gorman told America and the world on Inauguration Day, “Even as we hurt, we hope.”

Those are words to live by inside San Quentin these days. What else can we do?

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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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.