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Cell block at San Quentin State Prison, California
Photo by Eddie Herena

The man in his San Quentin State Prison cell was talking to no one in particular this winter. “It’s cold in here,” he yelled, adding a curse word worthy of the temperature.  

“Yeah, it is,” a neighbor within earshot responded. “They keep the hole freezing on purpose.”

In administrative segregation, known as AdSeg, isolated prisoners chatter loudly from cell to cell throughout the building. Our only source of “warmth” is daily social interaction.

I arrived here in mid-December 2022, just in time for the Bay Area’s record cold. I haven’t felt a hint of indoor heating since. What’s worse is that AdSeg policy bans our long-sleeve shirts, sweats and headgear. The only personal clothing we’re allowed is our underwear.

What degree of general comfort do segregated prisoners inside the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation deserve? We spend most of every day locked inside a one-man cell. Time isn’t the problem — there is plenty of time to read, write, study and exercise. But it’s difficult to be productive while trapped beneath sheets and blankets trying to keep warm. Even sliding out of bed to use the toilet can be painful.

The officers aren’t surprised. “Have you guys ever put in a work order to get the heat up and running on the unit?” I asked one.

“We know that’s a waste of time,” he said. “This is nothing new. It’s always cold here in winter.”

Before I was thrown here, I raised the issue of subpar maintenance procedures as a representative on the Inmate Advisory Council. “They’re doing all they can,” Warden Ron Broomfield said with a smile at an IAC meeting in November.

IAC members voiced concern over delayed heating repairs, widespread plumbing problems and continually overlooked maintenance upkeep. Broomfield cited staff shortages, hard-to-fill employment positions and a lengthy queue of perpetual work orders.

To be fair, the skeleton crew of daily maintenance staff are, indeed, doing all they can.

But inside California’s oldest state prison, that might not be enough. Ventilation ducts remain caked in layers of dust and grime. Showers and sinks leak and run. Industrial-strength toilets flush nonstop for days, sometimes even weeks.

The public sees something nicer. Their tours are ushered through select areas that are kept clean and presentable. Administration relies on a hand-picked and well-rehearsed team of guides to present San Quentin as a shiny flagship of opportunity and rehabilitation. In March, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced San Quentin will transform from a maximum-security prison to a “one-of-a-kind facility focused on improving public safety through rehabilitation and education,” according to a news release from his office.

Broomfield’s view of incarceration focuses on the latter. “As warden,” he has said, “it’s not my job to punish you guys.” But then came this winter’s bone-chilling drafts.

“You think it’s cold?” said an officer in his heavy coat zipped all the way up to its fur-lined collar, which was below a thick wool cap. “I don’t feel it.”

He handed out my breakfast on a tray through a feeding slot while I stood in boxers and a short-sleeve shirt. We call this place a “jail within a jail.” Violating rules out there in San Quentin means being cuffed and escorted here. (I’m in AdSeg because the administration says my safety is at risk. I don’t buy it, but the system leaves no room for dispute.)

Life here is solitary. But with open-barred cell fronts we can interact with our neighbors. They’ll even relay communications to cover the distance of the building, across 50 cells on each of five tiers. I can hear guys on every level, along with the neighbors on my floor within 20 or so cells from mine. The all-day noise — sometimes at night, too — offers company, but it can be as terrible as the cold.

Another officer told me that the heaters are on and working right, but my cell is in a bad location, too far from vents. “If you were further down the tier, you’d feel the heat,” she said. “It’d be a lot colder in here if the heat wasn’t on.”

Soon after, I asked my neighbors along the tiers. Their answer came back to me, hitting my ears like a chorus.

“There ain’t no damn heat down here,” guys yelled from all over. “She knows she’s lying.”

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.

Joe Garcia is a journalist and PJP correspondent incarcerated in California. Garcia was previously a staff writer and the chair of the Journalism Guild for San Quentin News. In addition to prison publications, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Washington Post and the Sacramento Bee.