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“You have COVID again,” said the nurse.

After last year’s fiasco, these were the words I did not want to hear again. As we entered the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we all hoped the world — especially the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) — would be a bit more prepared.

A little more than a year ago, COVID-19 wreaked havoc — especially in prisons, which are isolated bubbles whose main source of exposure is through employees and staff. The California prison system suffered terribly from the outbreak, starting in Southern California before making it to San Quentin State Prison and then the rest of the system. 

Waves of inmates at Mule Creek State Prison, where I am, also tested positive for COVID-19 and were corralled into quarantine zones erected in each of its facilities’ gyms. Conditions there were atrocious at best. The gyms were unheated, unsanitary, unsafe and inhumane. Some of the facilities had only one toilet available during the night for up to 100 inmates. The toilet was often clogged for hours at a time. 

Thanks to families on the outside who expressed their concerns to the warden and the California governor, inmates were finally returned back to housing units and reunited with whatever property of theirs remained. Some inmates, however, were displaced, along with their property, for months.

Vaccines at Mule Creek were administered in early February 2021. After the second dose, summer seemed to be the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. Then the delta variant hit and the booster became vital. 

By August 2021, the discussion was no longer about the spread of COVID-19. While unvaccinated inmates were transferred out, correctional officers and medical staff protested for their right to remain unvaccinated. One officer said that he was more likely to catch COVID-19 from the inmates than anyone outside the prison. Another officer commented that the vaccine was administered too soon without any concerns about testing or its effectiveness. 

As the power struggle pushed on, omicron, the latest COVID-19 variant, emerged as more contagious than its predecessor. With Mule Creek inmates fully vaccinated, the fears and anxiety about omicron had initially been minimal, but that all changed in January 2022.

The first rumor was that an officer was sick with omicron, and later there was confirmation that a staff member in the Prison Industry Authority (PIA) had tested positive. PIA is a program in California that employs incarcerated people to produce goods and services including office furniture, clothing, food and other goods to sell to state agencies.

Within days, the institution returned to high alert, with mandatory COVID-19 testing and limited interaction between the buildings. The seriousness of the protocols, however, was minimized. Officers and inmates interacted without masks and mixed in dayrooms and yards. Even those who were in contact with staff, who were suspected of being positive with COVID-19, continued to mingle with the population. 

Then people began to show signs of illness such as coughing, headaches and dry throats.

The quarantine zones in facility gyms returned and once again inmates were shipped into isolation. As inmates were told to “pack your stuff, you’re going to quarantine,” officers and medical staff shifted blame between each other on who brought on the moves. 

Once again, there was a lack of information and a lack of care. When inmates refused to move to the quarantine zones, the administration threatened to issue rules violation reports and forced them and sometimes their cellies to move. 

Anxiety spiked and masks became popular again, but preventing the spread no longer mattered: We were all contaminated. 

We all wanted to know the real driving force behind the decision to quarantine inmates in gyms instead of locking them in their own cells, where their property, access to a bathroom and stability were available. Some officers told me that it was about money. Officers, who worked the quarantine zones, received hazard pay in addition to overtime.

The inmates, including myself, who were moved to the quarantined gyms in other sections of the prison once again suffered in environments with harsh temperatures, minimal supplies (especially sanitation chemicals) and crowded living quarters. Bunks were aligned in rows extending the length of the entire gym. Little was offered in the way of medical treatment or information. Most of the inmates had mild or no symptoms, but it was not COVID-19 that caused the most harm. 

In California institutions, including Mule Creek, facilities are divided by security levels with the highest level — Level IV — housing inmates with the longest sentences and serious disciplinary histories. Mixing the different levels is a security issue because Level IV inmates have less to lose. 

There were many stories of violence, thievery and abuse as inmates were mashed into the gyms regardless of custody level.

One inmate, “David,” spoke to me about his experience. As a Level I inmate, the lowest security level, he had a short time to go until his release. When he arrived at the gym, he was thrust into a situation with Level IV inmates who had already established their territory in unassigned bunks. As the gym filled with incoming patients, assigned beds became a critical issue, and the officers had to intervene with force. 

When David returned to his bunk, he found all his property strewn across his bed and his cabinet locker missing. He confronted the culprit. His next memory was waking up in an ambulance with an officer escort. He was later informed that the Level IV inmate had hit him from behind, and his head struck a bed on the way down. When he returned to the gym, his property was gone and could not be recovered. 

Another inmate, “Joe,” shared a similar story. After arriving, he stayed on his bunk with his property, even staying awake all night to guard it. Joe also spoke about the health hazards from the lack of enough toilets, sinks and proper showers, and the fire hazard of so many TVs and extension cords plugged into only two outlets. No one was housed 6 feet apart, and proper supplies such as medicine to treat symptoms were unavailable.

Not all neglect occurred in the gym quarantine zones. One inmate, “Timmy,” passed away in his cell, presumably due to a heart attack. His cellmates were concerned about his health for a week. 

Timmy had informed them that he was part of a clinical trial for the new drug EvuShield, to protect immunocompromised patients from getting COVID-19. After receiving the treatment, his health deteriorated quickly, but his fears of being moved to the quarantine gyms kept him from seeking further medical assistance. On his final day, he was in and out of consciousness, unable to sit up and unable to request proper help. Even after being carted away and pronounced dead, no one in his room knew what really happened or had any way to contact his family.

This is the fate of California inmates. If the system that was supposed to prepare us to be better citizens continues to fail and abandons us, how can we be expected to change?

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.

Franklin Lee

Franklin Lee is a reporter for the Mule Creek Post, a newspaper inside Mule Creek State Prison in California.