Photo by McKevin on iStock

When the sun beams through the dirty, dusty, stained windows it casts a haze over the entire cell block, giving you the feeling of floating around a dirty fish bowl. Then there are the pigeons — and their droppings, which line every square inch of the catwalks.

On a typical day in San Quentin State Prison, we are released from our cells for chow. The first thing we notice is the lack of air circulating — the windows are never open. The six ventilation mechanisms are always clogged with dust so thick it resembles cement.

Given the bird poop problem, that’s an issue. Bird droppings can pose serious health risks to humans and can cause as many as 60 different diseases.

Upon entering the chow hall, the first thing one notices is the pigeons. Pigeons have declared their nesting home in San Quentin’s chow hall. We must pay close attention to where we sit because we could find bird droppings on the seat and table where we are preparing to eat.

“I went to chow and four pigeons were running around on the floor back and forth and on the tables we eat on,” said Glenn Albrecht, from Merced County. “Some of the birds were using the tables as their restroom. Twenty to thirty pigeons were up on the catwalk defecating while people ate. For this reason I put my food in a bowl, like some people do, [and took] my food back to my cell to eat.” 

Once the pigeon dropping dries it becomes hard and turns into dust that floats in the air. When inhaled the dust can cause a respiratory disease called histoplasmosis that can cause an influenza-like illness, high fever, blood abnormalities, pneumonia and occasionally death. 

Even when we go outside to the yard for recreation, pigeons still prove a nuisance. Yard time is what most incarcerated people crave because it is a temporary release from the confines of a very tiny cell. San Quentin offers yard conditions that most other prisons in California don’t. There’s a tennis court, a perfectly manicured baseball field and a full basketball court.

But what you will notice most is the birds of various kinds: pigeons, geese and seagulls, among other species. These birds have made San Quentin their home and their personal toilet. There are bird droppings everywhere. 

When an alarm goes off, the incarcerated inhabitants of San Quentin must immediately get down and sit wherever they are. If they are playing tennis, basketball, baseball or running track, you sometimes have to sit in bird droppings, said Parish L. Jackson, from Coco County. 

“I put in an inmate grievance on the ventilation system and the bird feces,” Jackson said. “Nothing was done. When an alarm goes off, we must sit in bird feces — or face disciplinary action.”

A New York prison had a histoplasmosis outbreak of 15 cases in the late 1970s and ‘80s, but recorded instances of prison outbreaks are rare. Most histoplasmosis cases occur in the Midwest and East Coast because of environmental conditions according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even though it’s rare, I worry about contamination getting transferred from the yard to inside the prison and causing an outbreak.

You’d think prison officials would be concerned about the prison population being able to shower immediately after being exposed to bird droppings, but the COVID-19 pandemic has restricted our shower access.

For a year during the pandemic, the incarcerated population was allowed to shower or go to the yard every other day for 90 minutes per tier. There were only six shower heads available to use at a time. Given the fact that there are at least 100 to 160 incarcerated people per tier and six shower heads available within an hour-and-a-half period, there was no way humanly possible for every person to shower every other day.

Now that San Quentin State Prison has resumed some state of normalcy, there are 12 shower heads available, but we’re still cramped together like sardines in a can.

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.

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Anthony Wayne Williams

Anthony Wayne Williams is a writer incarcerated in California. Before his incarceration, he owned “The Autowarehouse,” a large car custom shop in Montgomery, Ala., where he produced his own commercials and radio spots. He was sentenced to 16-years-to-life for second degree murder and has been incarcerated since Oct. 1995, two weeks after O.J. Simpson was acquitted.