Entrance gate to San Quentin State Prison in California
Photo by Teresa Tauchi

After more than two straight years of strict COVID-19 protocols, San Quentin State Prison (SQ) has begun adopting public health guidelines that reflect a growing consensus that the coronavirus will eventually become endemic. 

Wednesday, July 27, marked the end of hair-trigger building quarantines and so-called Outbreak Phases that previously brought the entire facility to a standstill. Going forward, once-strict quarantine protocols will be relaxed, and efforts will be made to ensure programming continues even if part of the facility is quarantined. 

Although SQ medical staff remain committed to COVID-19 vigilance, everyone — from top administration down to everyday officers and incarcerated residents — knew it was time for a policy shift.

“I was celebrating with the population when we were able to adjust our quarantine protocols according to the most recent public health guidelines,” said Warden Ron Broomfield. “Hopefully, we’ll have a great year of doing the things we care about.”

Broomfield became acting warden of SQ in March 2020, just weeks before California’s statewide COVID-19 shutdown. Soon after, he had to navigate the prison through one of the country’s worst and most fatal outbreaks in a correctional setting. The incarcerated community has endured periodic and onerous quarantines ever since.

Within a week of fully opening, SQ hosted what organizers called “Musicambia” — a three-day event in which 30 residents workshopped with outside professional musicians before performing a collaborative concert on Aug. 4 in SQ’s chapel venue.

Jay Kim was one of those resident musicians. He arrived at SQ in Feb. 2022, shortly after the start of his first prison term. Before participating in Musicambia, which was organized by a New York-based music nonprofit and the Prison Arts Project of the William James Association in Santa Cruz, Kim’s experience within the California corrections system had mostly consisted of quarantine lockdowns with no access to rehabilitative opportunities.

“I’ve heard about a lot of things San Quentin had before the pandemic — celebrity appearances, NBA stars, cancer walks. But I didn’t really know what that meant,” said Kim, after rapping alongside Judith Hill in Musicambia. “I’m a little blown away right now by the amount of talent on stage and the level of support we were shown. When I see the programming that happens here, I see hope.”

SQ Chief Medical Executive Dr. Alison Pachynski has been at the forefront of establishing a pathway to a return to normal operations at the facility.

“The new [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines in May give us license to be creative,” said Dr. Pachynski, who addressed members of SQ’s Inmate Advisory Council (IAC) on Aug. 5.

The IAC, of which I am a member, is composed of incarcerated representatives from every housing unit who serve as liaisons to prison administration. Dr. Pachynski meets with IAC members regularly to keep tabs on the patient community and to provide public health-related updates.

“We want the wiggle room to be able to keep as many people as possible out there programming,” said Dr. Pachynski. “The SQ population is incredibly well-protected through hard-won hybrid immunity. We can’t be so quick to place a housing unit on quarantine.”

Dr. Pachynski defined hybrid immunity as the combination of vaccination and natural immunity acquired through infection. The two together are far more protective than either by itself, she said.

SQ’s incarcerated population has achieved a 94% vaccination rate. Under the new procedure, exposed residents who stay up to date on vaccinations and boosters won’t be rehoused into quarantine units whenever their cellmate tests positive for COVID-19.

Going forward, Dr. Pachynski said a housing unit will be placed on quarantine only in the event that three linked cases are discovered.

“That’s the key word — linked,” she said. “In a small dormitory setting, that’s easy. But in a unit with 800 people, it’s not so easy to do that.”

SQ residents had grown increasingly frustrated with the old guidelines and procedures, which mandated that one positive result could trigger a 14-day quarantine period.

Tony de Trinidad attended his Victim Offender Education Group on July 28. It was only the second time the group has met since programs were sidelined back in March 2020. And he was still skeptical that they would continue to meet regularly. 

“There’s no guarantee that we’ll be here together next week,” said de Trinidad. “I don’t have any confidence that the things will stay open and [that we will] not go back into a quarantine.”

Although the rest of San Quentin has remained open and fully programming, de Trinidad’s housing unit — West Block — went into quarantine on Aug. 16. That was just days after multiple residents there began calling for emergency medical attention due to respiratory complications from the influenza A virus.

Now, when residents show flu-like symptoms or self-report their illness, they are placed in isolation and tested for COVID-19, influenza A and influenza B all at once. One positive influenza test result amid other suspected cases within a 48-to-72-hour window can cause an SQ unit to be placed on an initial five-day quarantine; it will be prolonged if more tests come back positive. Meanwhile, two positive flu cases within a 72-hour period will automatically trigger quarantine.

“We can’t pretend like it’s not happening,” said Dr. Pachynski after West Block’s influenza quarantine was extended multiple times, ultimately lasting almost two weeks. “I know we’re all just exhausted by this kind of thing, but we’re probably going to be doing this for a minute with the flu.”

West Block residents could not take part in the Marin Shakespeare Company performance on Aug. 19, or in any of the baseball, basketball or tennis events against outside sports clubs that occurred on subsequent weekends. For SQ residents, that’s what the new normal will look like: Programs and events will continue on — with or without participants from whichever units are currently quarantining.

In a sign of the facility’s return to normal, Warden Broomfield threw the traditional opening pitch on Aug. 20 in a game between an all-prisoners team and an outside team, and spent hours among the population at the long overdue Day of Peace on Aug. 27. The annual event, which was last celebrated in 2019, honors the SQ community’s commitment to rehabilitation and non-violence.

To help mitigate the domino effect of the influenza virus, SQ medical offers Tamiflu, an antiviral drug, to any resident who requests it as a prophylactic treatment. “It’s not a guarantee, but it can reduce symptoms and infection,” said Dr. Pachynski.

The next big hurdle for the SQ community may soon be a change in mask mandates. Right now, masks are required indoors. “Are we stuck with masks?” wondered Dr. Pachynski. “We anticipate more direction from the California Department of Public Health about masking in the future.”

She also said she can see a future where residents in COVID-19 quarantine units are offered rapid testing in order to still attend classes and self-help programs.

“Quarantines are going to happen,” said Dr. Pachynski. “There’s no way around it. Testing to program is likely our ticket to continue to do all the things that San Quentin is known for.”

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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Joe Garcia

Joe is a journalist at San Quentin State Prison and a staff reporter for San Quentin News. A San Francisco native with no connection to the carceral system before his arrest, Joe first believed prisons were filled with the worst people imaginable. But within his first week in Los Angeles County Jail, he found himself surrounded by people with rich, complex stories. Joe requested a transfer to San Quentin with the express purpose of working for the prisoner-run newspaper and now helps fellow prisoners find their voices as writers. In addition to prison publications, his work has appeared in the Washington Post and the Sacramento Bee.