“Wear your mask or else!” That message, coming from the loudspeakers at the California Men’s Colony West at San Luis Obispo, California, may sound like a safety precaution, but it is not. It is just a public relations stunt. Because a COVID-19 auditor is due to visit our yard today, we are all being told to put on a show of coronavirus safety. In ordinary times (when there are no important visitors scheduled), we have few masks, no tests and little in the way of safety precautions.
I am a stage 4 cancer patient and this worries me personally but also frustrates me as a citizen. What concerns me is the huge show that I see being put on by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to convince the public, the politicians, the bureaucrats, and even itself of its efforts to reduce the risk of the spread of the virus. It is a big charade, and everyone on the yard — prisoners and guards — know it.
I have been here for about five years. It is a prison that is run more like a country club — we have no locked doors in the dorms, loose enforcement of rules, lots of recreation opportunities, and beautiful scenery visible through the perimeter fences, 24/7/365. And we are told that we have not had even a single case of COVID-19 here at CMC West. But there has not been any testing, other than a small amount of temperature checking of staff and medical patients, so it is possible some prisoners have been infected and recovered without symptoms and without their knowledge.
We are in the same county as the Lompoc Federal prison, which has made national news because of its many hundreds of confirmed cases and several deaths. So we have been lucky — but not careful.
The dormitories are crowded and bunks are placed far closer than social distancing would require. I live in a dorm that before the pandemic housed 45 inmates who were medically fragile. Due to the virus and a desire to reduce overcrowding in other dorms, twenty more inmates were moved from other dorms into ours. Now, there is an increase in risk to the most vulnerable inmates on the entire yard.
Because of my cancer, I go to the medical clinic here with regularity. Most of the time, the clinic sergeants and officers are without masks, even though the medical staff does protect themselves when dealing with inmate patients.
I have been transported outside of the prison for medical treatment, such as radiation many times. Often the two transportation officers operate the van from the front seat without masks, while I am in a cage behind them breathing conditioned air inside the van. The vents are often operated without any visible efforts to clean or sanitize them. Once I was transported a day after a COVID-19 patient was transported in the same van, and I had no sense that the van had been sanitized
Hand sanitizer and hand soap are provided only on rare occasions in the dormitories. They are quickly depleted and not replenished or replaced for days or weeks. The officers receive abundant hand sanitizer — 60 of us altogether receive less sanitizer than one guard. Officers who could easily be exposed to the coronavirus outside of the facility in the county often conduct their counts inside the dormitories without masks. Officers often group together on the yard and talk among themselves without masks and without adequate social distancing.
The staff has gone to the trouble of painting X’s on the sidewalk and on benches on the yard to mark appropriate social distancing, but no one practices social distancing unless it is a visiting day. The social distancing markers are part of what I call the big charade. Roughly 99 percent of the time, if you were to walk the yard you would see many officers and prisoners without masks, standing in bunches or sitting near each other.
This is the reality of life at CMC-West during the Coronavirus pandemic. If we get out of this pandemic with no casualties, it will be a miracle.
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.