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California Men’s Colony prison in San Luis Obispo suffered another outbreak of COVID-19 in January that spread rapidly among prison staff and incarcerated people, with 180 active staff cases and 167 active cases of those incarcerated reported as of Jan. 21, 2022, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).  

That is a marked increase in cases among the incarcerated in particular, given that the CDCR earlier this month reported that only 13 prison inmates had tested positive for COVID-19, according to a January 12 story in the San Luis Obispo Tribune

But that figure may well have undercounted actual case counts, since only 31% of the prison’s population had been tested in the last 14 days as of January 12, with that figure rising to 41% in the last 14 days as of January 21. 

Back in October 2021, the UCLA COVID Behind Bars Data Project released a report on the crisis of undertesting in America’s jails and prisons. 

“Officials have been conducting orders of magnitude fewer tests than congregate settings with much lower risks of transmission,” the project’s authors noted. “This provides strong evidence that more testing behind bars would reveal many more infections.” 

If prisons tested people more consistently, they could potentially save lives.

Throughout the whole dormitory, I can hear men coughing — little coughs that penetrate deep in their chests. The sounds catch me off guard. I felt like I could hear an inmate coughing every 47 seconds. I myself was sporadically coughing in early January, and my nose was dripping as well, but there is no way to know whether I had COVID-19 then because I was not tested. 

This dorm feels like an incubator for COVID-19, though it is not possible to know without fully testing every incarcerated individual. Sometimes I wonder why we got vaccinated and received booster shots only to contract COVID-19 after all, enduring yet another lockdown. This Omicron outbreak has felt particularly concerning given that 85% of the men incarcerated here, myself included, are fully vaccinated.

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.

Abdur Rahman Malik is a writer incarcerated in California.