Photo by Prasesh Shiwakoti (Lomash) on Unsplash

(This article was submitted in summer 2020)

On June 7, 2020, I took a COVID-19 test with negative results. Nurses took my vitals twice a day, and all of my checks were normal. On June 21, my cellie tested positive and suffered symptoms of fatigue, body aches, and shortness of breath. Under his condition, our cell was placed on quarantine. My cellie was urged several times by correctional officers to be moved and housed into COVID-19 isolation, but each time he refused. The West Block correctional staff did not separate us.

On July 21, I once again tested for COVID-19. I did not have symptoms, my vitals were normal, and I feel great, but I tested positive. On July 24,  I was approached in my cell by a doctor who recommended that I be moved into isolation, but I had the option to remain if I chose. I elected to stay because I felt good with no symptoms, and I could not come to grips being surrounded by COVID-19 positive cases in isolation.

The following day, a correctional officer approached my cell and said, “Harrison, you’re moving to PIA,” referring to CalPIA, the California Prison Industry Authority building where inmates manufacture products like furniture in normal times but was now being used to isolate individuals who tested positive for COVID-19. I refused.

California Code of Regulations Title 15 §3362 Availability of Treatment reads: “Inmates shall be informed any time they are the object of a particular health diagnosis or treatment procedures. Such person shall have the right to refuse assignment to such a program of diagnosis or treatment without being subject to discipline or other deprivation.”

On Aug. 5, a doctor approached my cell and had me sign and date a refusal form for July 25, so I did. 

On Aug. 7, a correctional officer handed me a memo which said, “Due to Coronavirus and all the inmates who have tested positive. Should you refuse to be housed into PIA by Monday you will lose 12 days of COVID credits. And you are in violation for “delaying a correctional officer to perform his duties” to house you in proper housing.” 

The paper also said privileges such as phone use, canteen access and visiting rights would be taken away if we were non-compliant.  

On Aug. 8, I packed and moved into PIA. Correctional staff made this a custody issue, and I felt intimidated. 

In PIA, I observed roughly 150 inmates of different ethnicities. I was shocked to see a gathering of eight inmates in close proximity not wearing masks. Moreover, correctional officers were not enforcing these men to wear their masks. 

The beds were spaced only two-feet apart, not in compliance with the 6-feet horizontal distancing rule. The restroom area had just four toilets, one urinal, and two sink basins. The two jars of antibacterial soap held 16 fluid ounces each. There wasn’t even a stockpile of toilet paper. We were only given one hour to shower every other day. Vitals were checked twice a day. Mine was always normal, and I continued to exhibit no symptoms.

Inside the building, there were two big screen televisions to view DVDs or regular television programs, but an officer had confiscated all chairs. Once again, there was no six-feet distancing and people were not wearing masks. The fact that officers did not intervene made me wonder if officials wanted inmates to contract COVID-19 and die. 

After the 21 day isolation requirement, we shuffled back to assigned housing. 

San Quentin is massively overcrowded because inmates in the Reception Center, who were waiting to be assigned prisons, had been ordered to remain here because no other facility would accept them amid the outbreak here. 

It is truly impossible to be isolated here unless the population is reduced. 

Our lives are in grave danger and Governor Newsom either stalls or fails to act with compassion.

Those who are 65 and older are on breath machines, confined to wheelchairs, and praying that they will see their families again. I personally have served 27 years on a 15-to-life sentence. I am 62 years old and I suffer from hypertension. I have been considered low risk to reoffend since 1998. My California Static Risk Assessment (CSRA), which measures recidivism risk prevention, is a 1, the lowest on a one-to-five scale.

Does my life and those of thousands of others who have served excessive time, matter? For myself, I made a most terrible choice back in December 1994, when I took a most precious, innocent life away from Denise. I deeply regret my choice, and I keep her within my heart and dedicate all that I do in her memory.

 
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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Bryant Harrison

Bryant Harrison is a writer incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison in California, serving a 15-to-life sentence.