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Photo by Eddie Herena

Prisoners housed in a section of San Quentin State Prison that used to function as a reception center have been told that they will be relocated, so it can be used again to receive people from county jails.

In a meeting called last night, porters and prisoner representatives in the Badger unit were told that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has asked for the roughly 250-cell unit to be emptied. As a representative for those of us, who are racially categorized as Asian/Other, I attended the meeting.

The announcement is causing much uncertainty and anxiety amid the pandemic, and many questions remain unanswered.

San Quentin had one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks last summer after prisoners with the virus were transferred here. In ensuing months, more than 2,200 of its roughly 3,300 residents were infected, and 28 prisoners died, according to a report by the California Office of the Inspector General. I was among them.

One of the biggest concerns in my mind is how they’re going to house us. Last night, officials told us that we would be moved to single cells in the Alpine unit, which would be all right because everything should pretty much be the same. But this morning, they told us to find someone we’re comfortable celling with, or they would find someone for us.

That could create another health problem because currently, there are men, who have completed their vaccinations, men who are waiting for their second shot this week, and men, like me, who haven’t even gotten their first. A few months ago, the administration had safety rules about who could cell with who. For example, a prisoner who has never tested positive for COVID-19 could only be celled up with someone, who was in the positive-resolved category, meaning that they had contracted and recovered from the virus. We haven’t received any information about whether such considerations would be incorporated in this move.

The decision to choose your own cellie is complicated. If you choose a cellie, there is an unspoken agreement that you have to compromise and tolerate each other. If someone is chosen for you, you can stay out of each other’s way. The downside of the latter is that you might end up with a cellie you can’t trust. I wouldn’t feel comfortable using the phone if I’m stuck with someone else, listening to every word. You might also leave for the yard only to come back and find that a candy bar or your coffee is missing.

I chose to be housed in the Badger unit until now because I could be in a single cell away from the others in an environment that is otherwise impossible to social distance. I also liked that they had phones on wheels, so I could safely and privately make calls.

I’m rolling the dice on this move by not choosing a cellmate in the hopes that we will have a chance at a single cell if there are any remaining.

I’ll report more when I know more.

(Reported by Joe Garcia via telephone; Written by Yukari Kane)

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.

Joe Garcia is a journalist and PJP correspondent incarcerated in California. Garcia was previously a staff writer and the chair of the Journalism Guild for San Quentin News. In addition to prison publications, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Washington Post and the Sacramento Bee.