(This was first published in PJP’s Sept. 2021 newsletter, “Inside Story: Under the Hood”)
Earlier this month, PJP San Quentin correspondent Joe Garcia broke the story that San Quentin State Prison was experiencing a new outbreak of COVID-19 based on a conversation he had at his cell with the prison’s chief medical executive, who was walking the tiers to check on prisoners and urge those who hadn’t gotten vaccinated to get vaccinated.
Joe held his lead on the story for a full week before a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) confirmed what he had reported: that four people had tested positive for COVID-19.
Joe’s story proved to us that journalism was indeed possible inside prison, but it was a feat to pull it off under lockdown without Internet and with limited access to anyone outside of his building.
The kernel of his story originated on Thursday Aug. 12 when Joe’s cell block was placed under quarantine after one person tested positive for COVID-19 the previous day. He was able to call to tell us about this even though he was under lockdown because his cell block had telephones that could be wheeled to his cell.
We asked him to find out what was going on.
While some prisons in the country allow incarcerated people to send electronic messages out using a basic tablet device that they can sync at kiosks to receive and send content approved by prison administration, San Quentin does not yet offer this capability. So we used the only option available to us for a breaking story – Joe used the tried and true reporting technique of the old days and dictated his story to me over the phone.
At that point, all he knew was that three people, who tested positive for COVID-19 had been moved to the Adjustment Center, where they were being isolated. His sources were correctional officers, who provided the information on background.
In some prisons with some of our writers’ stories, we don’t always seek official comment especially when the reporting doesn’t rise to the level of journalism because that could lead to severe consequences for our writers. We still publish the stories when we feel like the content provides important information and context, but we make an effort to be as transparent as possible about the nature of the information, where it came from and how reliable it was, so readers can decide for themselves how much to trust the information. We also make clear that the stories are personal perspectives.
In this case, however, we felt it was crucial to seek official comment from the prison and CDCR because the story was going to be a big deal. San Quentin had been a hot spot for one of the worst outbreaks in the country last summer, and more than 300 prisoners have sued the prison and the corrections department for the conditions during that time.
We also trusted the public information officers at San Quentin and CDCR because we knew some of them, and we knew they respected journalism. San Quentin had a big media center that housed San Quentin News and the Ear Hustle podcast, and its public information officer was an advisor for PJP.
Nevertheless, we needed to be sure it was going to be safe for Joe, so we asked him if there was any part of his reporting that could land him in serious trouble with prison officials. I was relieved that he responded with a laugh and said no. If freedom of the press was not respected at San Quentin, we’d be out of business.
While we were waiting for an official comment, Joe kept pounding the pavement as much as he could in the handful of hours he was allowed outside of his cell. On Saturday morning, he called to report that three more people had tested positive for COVID-19 and were isolated. He had gotten the information from officers, but he had also verified the absence of the men who were moved out of his cellblock by checking that their cells were empty.
During this time, PJP was also doing background research on CDCR’s latest official COVID-19 tracking data, the situation with the Delta variant nationwide and last summer’s outbreak at San Quentin, so we could help Joe add context to his story.
Joe’s big break came later that day when he spotted Alison Pachynski, San Quentin’s chief medical executive walking through his cell. Joe knew that CDCR defined an outbreak as three or more related-cases of COVID-19 because we had looked that up for him. That bit of outside reporting enabled him to ask her directly whether the latest positive test results meant that there was a new outbreak at the prison. She said yes, giving him definitive confirmation.
Read Joe’s breaking story, which attracted a record audience, as well as his follow up story. For an alternative view of the same story, read Steve Brooks’ account from San Quentin’s North block.
Then listen to Joe talk about how he got this story, and the response he has been getting.
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.