Today is August 1, 2020. We are well into the COVID-19 pandemic. The surrounding county of San Luis Obispo is on red alert with more active cases of COVID-19, more hospitalizations and more fatalities. If COVID-19 is to get into the prison population, it will be vectored via officers and staff bringing in the virus from outside the facility.
At 7 a.m., I am outside my dormitory waiting for the line to form at Chow Hall. The delivery truck from the kitchen is backed into the loading dock at the hall, and inmates are attending to the stainless steel carts containing this morning’s breakfast. Meanwhile, three officers and the truck driver are huddled together closely, well within six feet of one another, shooting the bull. Not one of these potential vectors is wearing a mask; no masks are even pushed down around their necks or visibly apparent at all. If even one of them has picked up the virus and is asymptomatic, the other three will likely be infected and pass it on to the dorms, the program office and beyond.
I have long since filed my 602 grievance form asking for early release from prison on the grounds of my age (64 years old), my medical fragility (Stage 4 prostate cancer and diabetes), and the ineffective mitigation of COVID-19 at my facility. My petition has been denied and is now in the hands of Sacramento, where I expect it to be denied once and for all. The reason for denial is that numerous measures have been taken and are in effect to protect prisoners like me from the Coronavirus.
There are two basic problems with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) COVID-19 mitigation.
The first is that some of the mitigation techniques have little or no chance of stopping the virus’s spread. For instance, putting lines on the dormitory floor to establish imaginary “pods” cannot possibly halt the spread of the virus. Even if there were six places where adjacent bunks could be, they could never be separated by six feet of distance. These lines and the separation of bunks in no way prevent inmates from walking, at any time, day or night, six feet away from other prisoners. There just isn’t enough space. Prisoners also move around day and night en route to the day room, the front door, the bathroom, shower, office, etc.
There is no meaningful protection from the spread of COVID-19 within the dormitory, and there are at least eleven extra prisoners living in the dorm compared to the pre-COVID-19 population. Each new prisoner brought into the dorm increases the risk of exposure to the population. They freely move about the yard and facility, where they can be exposed to the virus.
Another example of mitigations not working was when I went to the bathroom to wash my hands after breakfast. There was no soap in either of the two stainless steel dispensers. Yet in the second denial of my 602 grievances, it was claimed that all soap dispensers are filled daily. I asked other inmates in my dorm if I was missing something. I also asked inmates in other dorms if they had hand soap every day. Every prisoner I asked told me what I have already seen and know to be the case — soap dispensers are almost never filled, COVID-19 pandemic or not.
It was also said that officers were instructed to wear their masks at all times, and that temperature screening of all prison employees and staff arriving for work each day, also protected me from COVID-19 exposure. Recently, my primary care physician told me that ten nurses at the CMC West Clinic had tested positive for COVID-19 even though all staff had temperatures taken before entering the facility that day. All ten nurses had been considered safe to enter the facility, but when they were formally tested, they were found to be positive for COVID-19.
Why are there such fantasies and charades about effectively mitigating the spread of the virus? It is believed that if a policy is placed into official writing, it must be true. They think that if they say officially that the COVID-19 virus is being mitigated, then it is. They’ve never bothered to investigate compliance with their directives in any meaningful way.
Yet I know what I see around here every day including today.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.