Editor’s note: this COVID-19 report is from fall 2020
In March 2020, San Quentin State Prison began its modified lockdown.
I was living in cell 119 in the South Block’s Alpine section, and once the lockdown began we were no longer allowed out. The only time we could leave our cells was for medical appointments, except for the workers, a group of inmates who were volunteered to distribute food and supplies.
Every morning, six or seven inmates would work together to hand out bagged lunches and breakfast trays, while just two or three workers would bring the dinner trays in the evening. On Wednesdays, the morning workers would pass out toilet paper and soap after mealtime. On Saturdays, they’d bring clean clothes.
Testing for COVID-19 began in early May, and the first transfer out of Alpine came on May 18. We did not receive cloth masks before then and the only time we had access to hand sanitizer was when an outside benefactor donated some.
During the early days of the lockdown, we were sent to medical appointments in groups of up to 15 people at a time, despite orders to observe social distancing. We were crowded together in cages, sometimes eight of us per cage, stuffed side by side without any solid walls to separate us.
As the transfers out continued, we eventually got an incoming one. On May 30, 120 inmates arrived from the California Institution for Men in Chino. Within days, people in the Badger section, which was next to Alpine, began to call out for emergency medical assistance. Alpine and Badger are back-to-back and share an open ceiling, and within a week of the first “man down” in Badger, we had our first in Alpine. Every day thereafter, at least one more came down with COVID-19 symptoms.
On June 8, transfers were halted, we went into full lockdown, and the inmates stopped delivering food, supplies and clothing. Leading up to that date, flyers had been posted out on the walls that outlined preventative measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 and other relevant information, but we couldn’t read them since we couldn’t leave our cells.
Back when we were still being fed in our cells by the inmate workers, an officer was required to accompany them as they brought us the trays. There was one officer who never wore a mask during this time. He worked Sundays through Thursdays and was involved in the food distribution from March 18 onward, maskless.
Multiple people became sick with the flu or developed COVID-19-like symptoms but refused to inform the medical staff. Those who did were taken out of the unit, but once we were moved, some (myself included) were left to struggle with ongoing symptoms for days.
During the modified lockdown from March to June, we had continued to share cells — two people living in a space designed for one, in the middle of a pandemic, while being told to practice social distancing. There is nothing socially distant about having two people confined together in a cage where everything is less than six feet away.
In early June, the inmate workers from the morning and evening meal shifts were tested for COVID-19 but were allowed to continue with their duties while waiting for the results. Three of them tested positive, and they had been handing us our meals for several days while infected.
After I came down with symptoms, I was moved to the Adjustment Center (AC). We were allowed to use the phone for 30 minutes a day to share our stories with the local news stations and other media outlets. Several people I knew from Alpine Section spoke to KCBS 106.9FM, a San Francisco-based radio news station, but in early July our phone use was cut to once a week. One of the officers told us that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) had been paying attention to our calls and may have heard inmates complaining about our food situation on the radio.
On July 5, we had stopped receiving hot meals, which were replaced by small, pre-packaged lunch snacks. By July 14, we were no longer allowed phone calls at all, and on that same day everyone on my floor was told that we were being cleared to move out of the AC.
I told the doctor there that this was the safest place for me. I have asthma, which puts me at a higher risk for severe complications from COVID-19. The way the housing units in the rest of the prison were structured, with bars instead of walls and dormitory-style accommodations, made it much easier for the virus to spread than in the AC, which was designed for maximum security.
I asked if I would be tested again before I was moved out of the AC and was told that I would not be. The doctor said that they were focusing on those with fevers and low blood oxygen levels, even though we know that infected people might not have either of those two symptoms. I told the doctor that I would fear for my life if I had to leave the AC and that I didn’t want to die.
When we call for help, the corrections officers (CO) don’t always come. Just a day earlier, someone on my floor had called out and no one came by until it was time for the mandatory cell checks. On July 17, I was moved from the AC back to Alpine without being tested, even after I informed the nurses that I still had symptoms and didn’t feel safe going back.
I told the sergeant who was on duty that day that I feared for my safety and he said, “Well, it’s just the old people that are dying.” I felt that sending me back without a test first was just asking for trouble. People were being moved all over the place without being tested. I was transferred along with three others, and more soon followed.
The situation was even worse in Alpine. People were sick and telling the nurses and officers daily. We were just being left to die here or fall severely ill and die at the hospital.
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.