Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

In these times of COVID-19 the inhumane treatment of prisoners is conspicuous. Prison officials, staff, as well as segments of society seem to hold firmly to the belief that the lives of prisoners do not matter. Let us look at three examples. 

First, around May 30, 2020, the prisoner population at San Quentin State Prison (SQSP), specifically North and West Blocks, stood just shy of 100% above design capacity, as it had for decades. At that time there was not a single case of COVID-19 at SQSP. Then, prison officials set in motion events that would lead to the infection of SQSP prisoners with COVID-19. 

As of August 11, 2020, more than 2,100 SQSP prisoners had been infected with COVID-19, with the death count at 25, according to the KRON-TV. [This story was submitted in August 2020. Read an October report on the outbreak in The New York Times here.] 

Remedial steps taken throughout July to promote social distancing included the reduction of the number of prisoners in North Block (NB). But in early August SQSP officials reversed course and in just over one week had repacked NB to nearly 100% above design capacity. Thus, SQSP officials had recreated the same living conditions in NB that existed in June and July which resulted in mass infections and deaths. 

It was disastrous to put together NB prisoners who tested positive for COVID-19, prisoners who had resolved their infections, prisoners who remained negative, and those prisoners who simply refused to be tested. In an effort to rationalize this decision, prison officials said that prisoners who had resolved their infections were immune from COVID-19. Although it may be argued that the initial infection of prisoners with COVID-19 was merely the result of negligence and poor decision making, the dire living conditions in NB today are the result of deliberate actions. 

Secondly, the poor quality of prison food is to sustain life, nothing more. With COVID-19 out of control, prisoners were for a time provided with nutritious meals prepared by an outside contractor. Sadly, it seems that prison officials bristled at the costs and discontinued those meals. Breakfasts and lunches are now bag meals of the poorest quality. Officials tout dinner meals as hot meals, but they are served on paper trays at room temperature and are unappetizing. 

Finally, on August 9, 2020, the NB prisoner population was jolted awake by the announcement over the public address system of the passing of Sergeant Gilbert Polanco due to COVID-19. While we all feel for the passing of the sergeant and his family, friends, and coworkers, one might wonder: why hasn’t a single announcement been made for the 25 prisoners who have died due to COVID-19. No names were shouted out, not a drop of commiseration shown to the prisoner population for their losses. 

The lives of prisoners do not matter. 

 
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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David Scott Harrison

David Scott Harrison is a writer from San Diego incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in Calif.