Photo by Eddie Herena

(Corrected to remove Death Row from the units included in Facility B. Death Row is in the East and North block, which is part of Facility A)

San Quentin State Prison is experiencing a new COVID-19 outbreak after four incarcerated men in a cell block tested positive, chief medical executive Alison Pachynski said on Saturday.

An official memo to staff and residents said San Quentin was putting facility A, which includes the four cellblocks that house most of the prison’s general population, back on phase I, the most restrictive outbreak phase. The prison is also closed again to incoming transfers. The memo, issued on Saturday, was signed by Sgt. Robert Gardea, a spokesman for San Quentin State Prison and warden Ron Broomfield.  

Earlier in the week, the prison had put the Alpine unit of the South block on quarantine after one person had tested positive for COVID-19. Corrections officers said shortly after that this person and two others had been moved into isolated quarantine. On Friday night, three more followed, for a total of six. 

Pachynski said that four of the six were symptomatic and confirmed positive for COVID-19 even though they had been vaccinated. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which oversees the state’s prisons, defines an outbreak as three or more cases. 

Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for the corrections department confirmed in an e-mail on Sunday afternoon that “one facility within San Quentin has been placed on quarantine based on four possible COVID-positive cases,” adding that medical teams were still assessing whether some of them might have had false positive test results. 

“Out of an abundance of caution, and per our Roadmap to Reopening plan, that facility has limited movement and canceled in-person visiting today. Testing and monitoring is occurring regularly as well,” she said. 

Waters said the rest of the prison was operating normally. 

The memo to staff and residents said Facility B, which includes a lower security unit that houses more than 300 prisoners, was operating normally.

The latest fears of COVID-19 inside the prison come as the delta variant, a more contagious version of the virus, sweeps the country, becoming the predominant strain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CDCR has reported 151 new cases in its facilities in the last 14 days. Weekly cases recently have risen above 100 for the first time since mid-February. 

San Quentin was one of the hardest hit facilities in the country last summer after a prison transfer helped fuel a public health disaster in the prison, infecting more than 70% of the residents and resulting in 29 deaths. More than 300 San Quentin residents have sued the prison and the corrections department over their handling of that situation. 

This time, however, the prison administration has reacted more quickly. 

Saturday was supposed to be a day off for Pachynski, but she reported to work and walked the tiers of the Alpine unit, answering questions and imploring non-vaccinated people to get vaccinated. 

“I’m here because I’m begging guys to get vaccinated right now,” she said, adding that she is worried about their ability to receive adequate care in outside hospitals, which are beginning to fill up again. 

Nurses also made their rounds administering rapid tests. Those who declined it were told they would be placed in isolated quarantine if they didn’t take the test. The residents were also told that a rapid test would be administered every day. 

Nurses said that at least one person tested positive on Saturday.

Residents in the Alpine unit have been following the situation nervously since the first person tested positive on Aug. 11. 

“They know how highly susceptible we are. Of course I’m scared for myself,” said Dennis James Victorian, 60, a vaccinated resident who had COVID-19 last summer. “(An outbreak) is inevitable just like the outside world but far more heinous in here.”

According to corrections officers, the prisoners who tested positive for the coronavirus were taken to the prison’s Adjustment Center, which is traditionally used as the solitary confinement “hole” for Death Row. The Adjustment Center is the prison’s first option for isolation because of its cells’ solid metal doors. Regular cells in other buildings have open-bar fronts. 

The return to phase I in Facility A comes just months after San Quentin had begun returning to normal operations in May. 

After the outbreak last summer, CDCR and the prison had been taking more precautions. In her statement, Waters said they require the use of masks at all times and continue to encourage vaccinations, adding that 85% of San Quentin’s prisoners are vaccinated. Officers and other outside staff are at around 60%, according to official reports. 

At a meeting with prisoner representatives earlier this month, prison staff also said that only fully vaccinated prisoners have been allowed to be transferred in from other prisons. 

The Adjustment Center, where individuals were being held, can accommodate up to 97 residents in one-person cells. The Badger section, a unit of 247 two-person cells, has also been kept vacant for months in case emergency quarantine housing becomes necessary. 

Still, prisoners have been worried because many of them live in a cell with another person, making it impossible to maintain social distance. Even after Alpine’s 336 prisoners were sequestered from the rest of the incarcerated population, San Quentin corrections staff have also continued to work different shifts in different units. 

“That’s what we’re here for — to spread the disease throughout the whole facility,” an officer had joked.

According to the Daily Program Status Report issued on Saturday, work assignments have been halted for everyone in Facility A except for critical workers such as medical clinic workers, porters, and kitchen staff. Showers will be limited to groups no larger than ten, and phones will be cleaned between uses. Visitations have been canceled, and meals, laundry, and packages are being delivered to the cells. 

After Alpine was placed under quarantine, officers announced that all residents must wear N-95 masks whenever outside of their cells, rather than the lightweight surgical masks that have been the norm for months. 

Pointing to people in Alpine milling about after dinner on Thursday without masks or with their masks down to their chins, one officer told them, “You guys need to start taking this shit seriously again … It’s only going to get worse. Do I really need to start writing people up for non-compliance?” 

 
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.