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"Prisoners on a Projecting Platform" (Giovanni Battista Piranesi)

One of the questions I get asked the most is, “What is it like on death row?” 

I never knew what to tell anyone, but now I can easily say it’s like the coronavirus. Testing positive, having to self-isolate, then experiencing the various symptoms is like living day-to-day on “the Row” — it’s uncomfortable, lonely and, at times, downright depressing. 

In May 2020, the news ran through the condemned population in the East Block of San Quentin State Prison (SQSP) where I resided at the time. “The guys from Chino brought the virus with them!” 

I didn’t think twice about staying in my cell. I cut myself off from the yard, thinking, “If I get it, I don’t see hospitals putting effort into saving a condemned prisoner when they are already jam-packed with citizens who are seriously ill.” 

Moreover, I knew if one of the correctional staff contracted it, it would spread throughout the prison like wildfire.

I looked out the window and shook my head. I saw other condemned men in the recreational yard, going about their lives as if it were just another day. 

The basketball players were shooting hoops. Card players were slapping cards on the pinochle table. Dominos cracked on another table. Others crowded around the chess table, analyzing the strategies of two players going head to head. The calisthenics crew lined up, counting and doing burpees together. The muscle heads strutted around with their chests out after each set on the bars, laughing, joking and engaging in friendly competition on who could do the most dips or pull ups. 

The gossip-mongers huddled together, filling each other in on the latest news. The jailhouse lawyers argued the finer points of the law, sharing motions, case law and rulings with their audience to prove their points. Artists showed off their artwork trying to make a buck. Throughout the day, we all traded food items from our lunches with each other. Most opened the wrapper of whatever they had right there and ate without a second thought.

The next day, an alarm went off in the early morning. While the staff passed out breakfast trays, they found someone unresponsive. They soon determined that this was our first COVID-19 casualty in the prison. Days went by, and all you heard were alarms going off as COVID-19 became the newest member on the Row, infecting the majority of East Block — which housed about 540 men, according to my estimate. 

There were so many positive cases that the prison couldn’t move them anywhere to isolate them. It had nowhere to put them. The virus was spreading everywhere. 

One of my closest friends here, who almost died in the hospital, had to wait for 30 minutes while he struggled to breathe, as all emergency responding medical staff were busy elsewhere. 

Our regular correctional staff started coming up missing; we later found out that they, too, were infected. The words that echoed in the media — “We’re all in this together” — hit home.

The usual laughter, arguments, lies, banter, singing and staff barking out orders over the loudspeaker suddenly ceased on the East Block. It became eerily quiet, and the only noise you heard was from the sick — which was generally everybody — coughing non-stop in a way I’d never heard before. That was followed by the sounds of people throwing up. It wasn’t vomit though, it was gunk pouring out of their lungs.

It was the quiet that got me. It brought me back to the reality of being on death row when California was still executing people. 

The quiet and the nervous energy was the same quiet that folded over us, as we hoped one of our comrades had received a stay of execution, only to feel the chill down our spine when we heard that at 12:01 the lethal injection had filled his veins instead.

After an execution, everyone would get serious about their appeal, searching for a way to receive a reversal and get off the Row. 

In a similar way, I brought the same determination with the coronavirus to do everything health officials advised, as well as adding my own special precautions to avoid the virus that was killing my friends. 

I covered my whole cell front with plastic and plugged up the back vent. I refused to step out for anything, or even take the plastic down for medical staff to take my vitals. I often told them, “If you can do it from 6-feet away, I’ll do it.” I wiped down everything that came into my cell with disinfectant, and what I couldn’t wipe down — such as mail — I put it on a three-day quarantine.

When I received food, I placed it at the edge of the bunk to open it. I would wash my hands twice, put the food in a bowl, then put the food containers in a bag next to the door. Then I’d wash my hands and disinfect the edge of my bunk. 

I stopped sending out laundry and did it myself. I didn’t accept anything from other fellas, who often tried to send me their food because they couldn’t eat, or send me a magazine they just got in the mail. When I used the phone, I disinfected it thoroughly, then put a sock on the handset while talking to my family through a mask.

After some 30 deaths — 28 inmates and two staff at the time of this writing — and conversations with those who were hospitalized as well as so-called long haulers, I maintain my vigilance. 

I’ve had 11 negative test results thus far. I don’t know if I’m asymptomatic, lucky or if it was due to my efforts that I’d never contracted the coronavirus. 

When will we be safe from COVID-19? I don’t know, but what I do know is how to socially distance myself, wear a mask, wash my hands, disinfect everything that comes into my cell and put them on quarantine to avoid becoming infected in the first place.

Going to the hospital and being hooked up to machines is like being moved to the “death watch cell” to prepare you for your execution. 

You hope that your lawyers will win a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court, so you can live another day. Being moved to the ICU to be put into a coma is like being strapped to the gurney with a poison-filled needle stuck into your arm in the death chamber. 

All you can do is pray the governor calls, giving you a reprieve at the last minute, but deep down, you know that this is the end.

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.

Joseph Kekoa Manibusan is a writer incarcerated in California.