Photo by Hakan Nural on Unsplash

The San Diego Zoo just gave coronavirus vaccinations to nine apes while hundreds upon hundreds of prisoners inside COVID-19 ravaged San Quentin State Prison wait for the same life-saving consideration. 

Seven months after one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks to hit any conglomerate population, many of us still have not received our first vaccination. 

COVID infections killed 29 members of our San Quentin community in 2020 — including one veteran correctional officer. The national COVID-19 death rate for the general public stands at less than 0.2%, but at San Quentin, nearly one in 100 prisoners died. That’s almost a full 1%. 

Densely crowded living conditions inside the prison turned its incarcerated population into the perfect petri dish last June after infectious incoming transfers from the California Institute for Men (CIM) ignited a rapid-fire viral spread. 

No one has died of COVID lately inside San Quentin, mainly because almost all of us have contracted the disease and recovered. Like de facto lab rats, we either died or survived. 

Beginning mid-January, public health officials have provided limited allotments of COVID-19 vaccines to select “high risk” prisoners, but for the average “healthy” COVID-19 survivor like me, there’s no telling when or if my turn for vaccination will come. 

Clearly, our recent COVID-19 history proves that every single person housed inside San Quentin remains at ultra high risk of infection, especially with deadly new variants being discovered across the U.S. Why else would nursing staff come to my cell so often to ask me if I want another COVID test? Since January I’ve been offered testing over a dozen different times, but never any vaccine opportunities. 

“If you’re under 65 with no health risks — and you’ve already had COVID — you’re going to be waiting a while,” one nurse recently told me, adding that it now looks like the prison population will follow the same vaccination protocol as the outside public. 

“In the scheme of things, you’re low priority. But we’ll get around to vaccinating all of you. Don’t worry,” she said. 

All officers and outside staff at San Quentin were offered COVID vaccination before the end of 2020, although many declined, leaving us susceptible to whatever contagion we get exposed to from outside sources. 

To appease public outcry, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sold us a dream for a brief moment: reducing San Quentin’s overcrowded population and allowing each prisoner to live and breathe alone in 4-feet-by-11-feet cells. 

But now, prisoners — without the protection of vaccination shots — are once again being packed back into cramped two-person living arrangements as San Quentin prepares to start receiving new arrivals from county jail systems. 

“We need to show Sacramento that we have a completely empty unit ready for incoming bodies,” Lt. Berry told residents in the 250-cell Badger unit on Feb. 17 before they were moved over to the Alpine unit on February 18. 

While COVID shutdowns stifled most inmate transfers from jails to state prisons, over 11,000 soon-to-be CDCR prisoners sit restless at county facilities all throughout California, according to San Quentin staff. 

But three weeks after emptying the Badger unit, it remains vacant and unused. 

None of us know exactly what’s in store for the near future here at San Quentin. Deuel Vocational Institute (DUI) in Tracy is slated to close permanently this year, so those prisoners will need to be housed somewhere. 

“It’s going to be on you guys to stay vigilant and keep wearing your masks, keep yourselves safe,” Officer Malikan told me as I rolled a cart with my property out of Badger. “How long have you been down? How many times has CDCR fucked you over?”

“With all these new guys coming in, anything can happen.”

 
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.

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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.