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I was alone in my residence when a stranger in a blue spacesuit came to my door and aimed his face shield at me. With a muffled voice reminiscent of Darth Vader, he said, “How are you feeling?”

My feckless mouth opened and closed a few times, like a dying fish in an angler’s hand. Finally, I managed, “Uh… nervous?”

I lived in a “pod” — a mini dormitory — with six other Valley State Prison inmates. But that was about to change. Through the locked door, the correctional spaceman called, “Pack your property. Your podmates have all been called back from work. The guy in 3-Low tested positive for COVID-19. The rest of you are going to the quarantine building.”

I glanced at my wall-mounted TV, cables, audio cords, homemade hooks and shelves — over three years’ worth of nesting. “How long do I have?”

“Half-hour? They have to test you guys first. Put your mask on and go have a seat in the dayroom while I pack 3-Low’s property.”

I obeyed and sat in the corner. Every inmate in D-1 was sent back to the building.

My podmates arrived first and we took up the first two rows of seats. When the other D-1 denizens arrived, the new spacesuits began urgent, mutually exclusive commands.

“Everyone get to the other side of the dayroom,” said one.

“No, wait, wait! Outside! Back outside!” snapped another.

A seasoned yard officer rushed in, pointed in the opposite direction, and added her voice to the cacophony: “Everyone who lives in C-Hall, sit on this side. This side, over here!”

The COVID-19 biohazard suits made it impossible to see the officers’ ranks, so we didn’t know whom to obey. I watched in confusion as the other 50 men from my hallway were directed to sit all around us — as we had been exposed to an infected person and had still not been tested.

“Wait,” I said, rising. “They can’t — ”

“Sit down! Quiet!” barked an officer.

For the first time, I took a moment to study the visages behind the clear protective shields. These people did not look vindictive or angry or petty. They looked scared — not only of the virus, but of this unwelcome window into how woefully unprepared they were to deal with this.

A grainy, commanding voice crackled from the PA system: “Back to your pods, one at a time.”

A few minutes later, everyone in our pod had tested negative, which was puzzling considering that we live, eat and sleep at a proximity that makes social distancing impossible. 

But someone had decided that despite the negative test results, we were to be shipped to A-Yard and housed in the quarantine building — presumably with other inmates who actually had COVID-19. An ingenious plan, if forced herd immunity was the goal.

“But why?” my bunkmate Mike asked a corrections officer (CO). “We’ve all been exposed. The person who had it is gone. We all tested negative, and we already live together. Why not just lock the door and put a sign on the door that says ‘quarantined?’”

It was clear the officer agreed but that it wasn’t his call. “Let’s go.”

In order to affect the move, we put all of our belongings into big orange carts and followed him like a line of annoyed ducks. 

Upon arrival to CTQ (confined to quarters), we were each isolated with another of the men with whom we’d already been living. 

It has been over a year since the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) used this same breed of unwitting efficiency to transfer more than 100 inmates from Chino, a deadly coronavirus hotspot, to San Quentin, where the overwhelming majority of the inmate population later tested positive. Greater than 20 inmates and several staff members have died there from the virus.

My podmate was the first to test positive here in Chowchilla, but if the uncoordinated debacle I witnessed is any indication of CDCR’s competence in this arena, a terrifying future is lurking in the wings. It is painfully obvious that no one knows what they’re doing in terms of facing this pandemic. The prevalence of officers scrambling around rather than ensuring safety is unacceptable. More efficient and effective safety strategies need to be put in place — as it’s quite literally a matter of life and death. 

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.

Benjamin Frandsen

Benjamin Frandsen is a writer incarcerated in California.