Inside an outbreak: How COVID-19 spread in San Quentin


Dying in prison is one of my worst fears. I can’t help but imagine being shot or stabbed to death in a prison yard. Over the years, I have prepared for an attack. But never in 25 years have I thought that the attack would come from COVID-19.

Nevertheless, the infection is here in San Quentin and people are dying. I hear the words “man down” every 20 to 30 minutes. As a 48 year old African American man with high risk asthma, watching the men around me get sick is scary. You feel helpless and all you can do is pray as illnesses and death overload your senses.

It didn’t have to be that way. We have not had any infections in San Quentin since the lockdown was put in place. We thought we would soon be going back to school, attending college classes, helping each other and enjoying family contact visits. But, on May 30, buses came out of a prison in Chino where COVID-19 was rife. One hundred and twenty-one men exited those buses, some showing symptoms of COVID-19, according to medical staff working in the prisons reception area.

Within weeks, the rate of indoor infections skyrocketed. Troy Dunmore, who was incarcerated for 25 years, fell with COVID-19 in late June.

“I was so hurt and sore that I could barely get out of bed,” Dunmore said. “One night, I urinated on myself. After a few weeks I tried to train and lost consciousness.

To date, more than 2,460 incarcerated men and more than 260 prison staff have contracted the virus. A correctional officer is dead. Twenty-six incarcerated people died. A man, who was released earlier due to the outbreak, has died while quarantined at a motel in Novato. Some incarcerated people are on ventilators or seriously ill. These are not just mild cases.

Since the outbreak, emergency vehicles have repeatedly entered the gates of San Quentin and rushed people to hospitals in the Bay Area. It is currently the deadliest prison epidemic in the country and many of us fear what will happen if a second wave hits.

Disturbing response

What’s alarming is that we barely knew what was going on until we experienced this sudden increase in the number of cases. Without warning, the infection spread like wildfire and San Quentin began quarantining those infected inside the punishment units, chapels, tents and warehouse of the authorities of the United States. prison industry, where workers normally assemble desks and chairs. They also built a 160-bed makeshift tent with double-glazed doors on the prison baseball field to house some people indefinitely.

“We need your help to control the spread of the virus. We need you to accept testing to identify new cases, ”the San Quentin health care team finally wrote in a note.

While these measures are meant to save lives, for many of us on the inside, the testing and quarantine process has been traumatic. Arthur Jackson was exposed to COVID-19 in June. He was quarantined in the Carson Section, a punishment unit where he felt like he was being treated as if he had done something wrong.

“We can’t buy soap powder, dish soap, or bagged food or spend more than $ 50,” Jackson wrote to me in a letter. Even though we were in the same prison, we couldn’t see each other because he was isolated. “I am handcuffed every time I leave my cell. “

Dunmore said he was transferred from his cell in the North Block to the Badger Section, one of the four administrative segregation units in the South Block, also known as “The Hole.”

“The cells are so dirty that they need a deep cleaning,” he said. “The supplies they give us do very little to help. It’s noisy and crowded there.

It’s not just the quarantine punishment that makes life difficult. When we are moved to be quarantined, we also fear losing our personal belongings or being matched with a bad cellmate when we return to regular housing units. And we’re concerned because the cells themselves aren’t cleaned properly after infected people are removed from them and quarantined elsewhere.

Vincent O’Bannon, a contributing writer for San Quentin News, said he believed he caught COVID-19 from his asymptomatic cellmate. “I spent 21 days in quarantine in a tent in the yard,” he said. “Afterwards, they put me back in the same cell.

Rush to normalize

Those incarcerated who should no longer be quarantined have been returned to double cells, believed that COVID-19 survivors are developing immunity to the virus. But no one knows for sure and many of us worry that prison staff are playing Russian roulette with our lives amid so much uncertainty.

Authorities are rushing to get incarcerated men in critical jobs back to work as shuttle drivers; in catering, the canteen, Reception and Release; and on cleaning teams for housing units and maintenance of hospital facilities. Prison staff were handling most of this workload during the outbreak.

But now, in a bid to free up more prison staff for other tasks, authorities are providing incarcerated workers they call “COVID Resolved” 10 hours of instruction on occupational health and safety standards in response to COVID-19. Inmates are trained in how to put on and wear N-95 masks correctly and computers are used to ensure these masks fit properly.

But the measures arouse some skepticism among the prison population. “They are trying to get us to help keep us locked in this death trap,” said an incarcerated critical worker who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.

News normally travels quickly through San Quentin. People in prison hear about what is going on through word of mouth, phone calls, television, newspapers and memoranda. Some of us come into contact with prison advocacy groups who are fighting to reduce the overcrowded conditions in San Quentin. But the volume and uncertainty of the information provided to us makes everything even more overwhelming.

These are stressful times in San Quentin. We are in the grip of anxiety, nightmares and sleepless nights. None of us trust the prison authorities to keep us safe or provide us with proper medical care. Many of us are sad that we have lost friends and frustrated by the prison staff’s lack of compassion for our situation. Some of us deteriorate mentally and physically.

And we’re all still in shock with how COVID-19 got to San Quentin – how it quickly spread, sickened, hospitalized and killed so many people. We haven’t had time to deal with this trauma yet, and the reality is that we may have to endure another outbreak of COVID-19 before the healing can actually begin.



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