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Alarm bells are ringing again at San Quentin State Prison (SQ) after four cases of COVID-19 were detected in the Alpine unit of the South cellblock.

On Wednesday, Aug. 11, Alpine was quarantined. By Saturday, North and West Blocks were also recalled to their buildings. 

I came back from a Saturday morning jog and had just gotten out of the shower when I heard the crackling of the North Block public announcement system. 

“Yard and dayroom recall,” a correctional officer shouted. “Everyone lock it up!” 

He didn’t say why, but North Block residents already had their suspicions. “COVID again,” someone blurted out. “Outbreak! Here we go again,” I heard another say.

Soon I heard the sounds of keys jingling, lockbars closing like gunshots, and cell doors clanging to a locked position. The doors of the North Block housing unit were slammed tightly shut.

Immediately, memories of the outbreak that occurred in June of 2020 came flooding back into my mind. That outbreak had infected more than 2,000 of us, killing 28 residents and an officer. 

About 10 minutes after the building was locked-up, Lieutenant Shelton got on the PA system and read a memorandum. It wasn’t very coherent, but I heard three important words: “You’re being quarantined.”

According to a memo posted in the officers’ station signed by Warden Ron Broomfield, the quarantine was expected to last 14 days. Transfers of prisoners from other prisons were temporarily halted. Family visits were canceled. Only critical kitchen workers and prison industry workers were to be released for work. Each housing unit would receive meals in their cells instead of in the dining hall. Programs were expected to resume if there were no new cases.

This marked the second time in a month that COVID-19 had been found inside San Quentin. According to a July 12 memo from Allison Pachynski, the prison’s chief medical executive, the first case involved someone from North Block. 

Fear and hopelessness are back in the air as many residents expressed frustration because they believe the cases were related to new people being transferred into SQ. Other residents believe prison staff are bringing the virus to work with them. 

“Everyday an officer gets on the microphone and tells everyone to wear their mask and practice social distancing, but that’s hard to do in an overcrowded facility,” said resident Alex Ross.

The situation is worrisome because there is no way to prevent the constant mingling of staff and incarcerated people. Some residents have to head to work or a doctor’s appointment. Shower time is also dangerous because dozens of residents must huddle closely together in arid conditions. 

So far prison staff have been able to extinguish the small COVID-19 fires, but many residents wonder what will happen when there’s another blazing inferno.

“They have no duty to protect us,” said resident Michael Moore. “They just do whatever the hell they want.”

Residents feel like this particular quarantine is shrouded in secrecy because prison staff have been standoffish when it comes to disclosing information.

In the past, the prison medical department circulated a memo to every cell and they sent out a newsletter called, “The Informed Patient.” Now, we have nothing. There is no nurse walking the tiers, no temperature checks or COVID-19 testing.

“They’re not telling us everything,” said Troy Dunmore, who was sick with COVID-19 in June 2020. “They don’t want to know the number of people who really got it,” he speculated. 

Many residents believe that there is an air of secrecy because the Marin County Superior Court is expected to rule on a lawsuit filed by 300 San Quentin prisoners for the conditions in the prison during last summer’s outbreak. Many of them believe that it is not in the prison’s best interest to share too much information. 

According to a Sacramento Bee article dated Aug. 4, 2021, a new report from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) showed only 40% of their officers are fully vaccinated. This number is so low it alarmed the federal receiver in charge of CDCR’s medical department. 

And now, the Centers for Disease Control is recommending everyone get booster shots. Clearly this pandemic is not over.

Residents feel like their lives don’t matter and that nobody is going to help them. “I feel they’re experimenting on us,” said resident Juan Haines, one of the 300 prisoners that have filed suit against San Quentin and CDCR for their handling of the outbreak last summer.

Many people don’t have any faith that any court decision will help the situation, nor do they feel that the federal judicial panel overseeing CDCR’s health care system cares enough. 

Residents working in the prison’s receiving and release department, which handles incoming transfers of prisoners, also have reported that buses with new prisoners are still arriving at San Quentin. 

“All we have is our humanity,” said Haines. “We have to stand up for our rights as human beings.” 

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.

Steve Brooks is a writer for San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated. He has been published in the San Francisco Public Press, Street Spirit, All of Us or None and Voice of Witness. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has won a 2020 Journalism Excellence Award by SPJ's Northern California chapter for two of his columns published by PJP.