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Photo by Eddie Herena

For the first time in almost 14 months, San Quentin State Prison’s main recreational yard opened to all residents from all housing units. It was the first time prisoners from different buildings were allowed to mingle freely. 

“It’s wonderful to see everyone out there at the same time,” said Dion DeMerrill. “It’s been over a year.” 

The residents learned of the decision at midday Tuesday when the prison administration issued a new Program Status Report (PSR), returning almost all prison programming back to normal, except for cell-feeding and limited in-person visitation. The new PSR allows all incarcerated workers to report back to their institutional job assignments, right alongside their co-workers from every other unit. It also said religious services would return to normal. 

San Quentin had been the site of one of the biggest outbreaks in the country, infecting almost every prisoner and killing 28, according to CDCR’s website. All San Quentin’s housing units — North, South and West Blocks, plus H-Unit — had been completely separated since Mar. 18, 2020, and residents generally had to be escorted by officers whenever they left their buildings until now. 

Prisoners had previously only gone to critical work assignments or education in limited numbers without interaction with any groups from other units. And no religious services had been held in that time either.

The announcement came on the heels of a memorandum issued last Friday to program providers that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) was launching a common sense reopening plan, in which it would review programs weekly and activate them based on health and safety considerations. 

The prison administration cited the continued drop in COVID-19 cases and the increase in vaccine availability. 

On April 26, San Quentin’s chief medical executive Alison Pachynski told members of the prison’s Inmate Advisory Council (IAC) that 77 percent of the prison’s population had been fully vaccinated. She said it was the third or fourth best in the state. 

“We’re looking forward to looking forward,” acting warden Ron Broomfield said at that same IAC meeting. “Testing and vaccination that’s how we keep this place healthy.”

Pachynski stated the importance of continuing to follow COVID-19 safeguards such as mask-wearing, frequent hand-washing and regular testing. “We’re gonna have to learn to live with COVID,” she said. 

Prisoners from every unit hit evening yard after their dinner meals were served. 

Tom Garner said he served South Block its dinner trays as quickly as possible. “Hell yeah, I’m going out tonight,” he said. “I got a coupla of partnas I ain’t seen in a cool minute.” 

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.