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

When I walk along the tiers at San Quentin State Prison and glance through the iron bars of the cells, I see people milling around in the stale and recycled COVID-19 air that permeates the environment. The Badger housing unit is now in quarantine. Nothing has changed, except that Gov. Gavin Newsom is about to end this COVID-19 emergency

I can hear people coughing uncontrollably or losing their voices. Some are experiencing body aches, fatigue and shortness of breath. They are unable to escape their disease-infested units.

One of them is Vincent O’Bannon, an incarcerated San Quentin News staff member who caught COVID-19 in the summer of 2020 and again in 2022. 

O’Bannon says he’s been “in and out” of solitary confinement as a result. “Every time I get sick, I get taken to the hole,” he said. “I had a 103-degree temperature and they put me in the hole.”

In addition to battling the coronavirus, O’Bannon was recently diagnosed with pneumonia and had to be transported to an outside hospital where he spent several weeks recovering. 

While the outside world was returning to normal, San Quentin was under quarantine for much of 2022. Overcrowded conditions and poor ventilation systems — that led to one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in a prison in 2020 — persist. In 2022 there were four outbreaks, and so far this year there has already been one.

The prison is currently operating at more than 118% of its intended capacity, with a recent population count of more than 3,660 prisoners. Nevertheless, buses continue to roll in and drop off new residents.

Beyond enduring the stressful conditions, the pandemic has shut incarcerated people out of important educational and therapeutic programs that help them prepare to re-enter society. Gone is the daily routine of carrying pencils and notebooks to school and self-help groups. 

Mount Tamalpais College, the first accredited associate’s degree program inside of a U.S. prison, hasn’t made it through an entire semester in the past couple years. The same is true for the Robert E. Burton Adult School, which helps prisoners obtain their high school diploma, and the Integrated Substance Use Disorder Treatment program.

Some rehabilitation programs at San Quentin, including the Alcohol Recovery Center and a program for restorative justice, are completely gone.

Meanwhile, people struggling with drug addiction aren’t receiving regular treatment. The same is true for some patients needing mental health treatment. And the California Reentry Institute and GRIP (which stands for Guiding Rage Into Power), popular programs that provide intensive in-person therapy sessions to violent offenders, are struggling to survive the quarantines. 

Often, prisoners are on their way to a program when they’re told to return to their housing units to be quarantined. Without access to their teachers, some students sit cross-legged on their bunks trying to figure out subjects on their own. Others are trying to improvise a workaround.

Dennis Jefferson said he had his family purchase correspondence courses that cost up to $75 each.

“I know the board of parole hearings is not going to let me use COVID-19 as an excuse for not doing something to further my rehabilitation when I come up for parole hearings,” Jefferson said. 

California’s corrections department received $14 billion in taxpayer dollars for fiscal year 2022-23, much of which was meant for rehabilitation programs. The Access to Programming Act, which was passed into law in October 2021, aimed to limit disruptions and barriers to rehabilitation programs. But prisoners are often still confined to cells.

Some reasons to hope for change have faded. Assembly Bill 2632, California’s version of the Mandela Act — designed to prevent prisoners from spending more than 15 consecutive days or more than 45 days in a 180-day period in solitary confinement — was vetoed by the governor in September 2022. In November, a Marin County judge denied 300 habeas corpus petitions requesting releases and single cell housing to protect against COVID-19, writing that “vaccines were a game changer.”

Prisoners at San Quentin who aren’t working in kitchens or cleaning buildings are wasting hours that they wanted to dedicate to education and rehabilitation. Many of them are wandering housing units aimlessly. 

The biggest danger to incarcerated people in San Quentin is no longer COVID-19; it is the prison officials’ response to the virus.

San Quentin is unable to keep us safe or to safely provide rehabilitation. What California prison officials should be doing is acting urgently to allow us to prove we deserve to return home.

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.

Steve Brooks is a writer for San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated. He has been published in the San Francisco Public Press, Street Spirit, All of Us or None and Voice of Witness. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has won a 2020 Journalism Excellence Award by SPJ's Northern California chapter for two of his columns published by PJP.