Illustration by Robert James Koenig

On Nov. 13, 2020, I transferred from Coalinga State Hospital (CSH) to the California Men’s Colony (CMC) state prison located in San Luis Obispo, California. The COVID-19 pandemic brought total confusion and chaos to the prison. 

When I first arrived at CMC, correctional staff had no clue where they were going to house me. The data in the computer system had not been updated due to excessive inmate movement among the four yards and the buildings in each of them. 

After sitting in a holding tank for an hour at the receiving and release building, I was finally escorted to Charlie Yard where I would be quarantined for 14 days per a newly established policy (because of a mix-up, I would actually be quarantined for 21 days). I was instructed to wait in the yard until staff could find a vacant cell. Two hours later, I moved into a cell. 

The cell I was placed in faced the yard. On clear days, this meant that the sun’s ray would be beaming in through the large cell window between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. The San Luis Obispo area is notorious for hot, sunny weather throughout the year because of its location in central California. 

The heating system was still operating even though the temperature was hot. With the sun’s rays beaming in my window, I felt as though I was in a sauna. Large fans were put outside my door but were placed so the flow of air traveled down the hallway. Because of this, it did not help cool my cell. All I could do was lie motionless on my bed wearing only oversized boxers. While in quarantine, we never changed our linen or clothing. 

Medical staff swabbed me five times in the 21 days I was quarantined. I tested negative each time. After 21 days, I was transferred to Delta Yard and housed in a new arrival building where I remained for 32 days. 

At some time during that period, I tested positive and was sent back to Charlie Yard. I was in building five where all the inmates who tested positive were housed. I stayed there for 14 days in quarantine then went back to Delta Yard. I was immediately swabbed and again tested positive. I was moved back to Charlie Yard where I stayed for only three days. 

I only stayed three days because 85 percent of the CMC population was infected, and there was no logical reason to continue to move inmates back and forth. COVID-19 had now infected the majority of the population. Medical personnel had to decide what to do next. 

The chief medical executive finally decided the vaccine was essential and made it available to staff and inmates in order to stabilize the situation. Five months after my arrival, the vaccine was offered to those who wanted it. The majority of inmates agreed to get vaccinated, but some refused because they believed it would not help. I received two shots a month apart from each other. 

Throughout this whole ordeal, all prison programs were shut down and we did a lot of cell time. Body temperatures were being checked every week, and I was being swabbed occasionally. 

Within the last two months, we have been allowed in the yard two hours a week, one building at a time. To date, most of the programs and jobs have been restarted. We must wear a mask when we leave our cells. 

Inmates are complaining about the many issues brought on by this pandemic. Some have taken it personally when it comes to, for example, being locked in our cells 24 hours a day for weeks at a time. It has been a mess, but the storm is passing. 

I feel more at ease now that things are getting back to normal. Scars will remain from this pandemic. It hit us blindly and there were situations not handled properly, but there were also situations that went well.

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.

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Robert James Koenig

Robert James Koenig is a German-Mexican writer incarcerated in California.