Coronavirus San Quentin

Sawyer, Kevin D.



SAWYER - CORONAVIRUS SAN QUENTIN By Kevin D. Sawyer How has one state prison within the monolithic California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), with its medical system under federal receivership for a decade, managed the coronavirus outbreak? And what, if anything, has changed for prisoners? Luckily, after more than seven weeks, San Quentin State Prison hasn’t been faced with the challenge to maneuver through the crisis on the same scale that has overwhelmed the nation, at least not yet. But if COVID-19 does strike California’s oldest prison, the inmates there are doomed, because the state, like the rest of America, does not appear to have a viable plan to handle this kind of emergency. No surprise there, considering the vain eleventh-hour attempt made by the government to slow the spread of the virus or contain it in other parts of the country. And although the American people have been forced to live differently, prisoners at San Quentin say nothing has changed for them because lockdowns and quarantines in this environment take place all the time. “Shelter in place? Now people on the street know what we go through,” said Poley, 68, who’s been incarcerated 38 years. He acknowledges “this COVID-19 thing is new,” but said “not much” was different about life in prison. “This is all part of the crap being in prison.” They’re criminals,” is probably a common response to Poley, As the case may be, unlike the more than 700 men on San Quentin’s Condemned Row, men in the prison’s general population weren’t sentenced to death by indifference. Forthose who believe otherwise, such negative sentiments toward prisoners are often met with the retort that people deserve the same justice that they advocate for others. And so far, coronavirus is not distinguishing “criminals” from civilians. That’s the only fact that makes everyone, except prisoners, believe they’re in this together. The CDCR is legally responsible for managing its 35 prisons and the human living conditions for the 120,000 men and women it has incarcerated. Years of apathy and indifference to the overall condition, however, has many of these prisons’ trajectory heading on a downward spiral as the infrastructure worsens. Add a world wide pandemic to the equation and it’s easy to see how the potential for a deadly outcome is not such a far fetched scenario. Prison is a place that breeds a ubiquitous unconcern for life and human suffering by correctional officers and inmates. Many of the latter willingly accept the loss of dignity for self and others. Abuse and discomfort is so routine in nature that they eventually become petty annoyances. When the same humiliation and mistreatment is heaped on society, it too becomes consistent with life on the inside. The onset of coronavirus in prison is just another phase of camera I Darwinism taking shape in a place where survival is reserved strictly for the fittest. Saviors don’t exist in prison, so inmates learn to improvise and adapt to every situation. To thwart the genesis of slow genocide of America’s surplis labor force of black and brown bodies, these “dregs” of society command not only physical strength, but mental fortitude to endure the fallout of incarceration. “Shelter in place means something completely different to me,” said who’s been incarcerated 30 years. He said nothing is different in prison because of coronavirus, but for people on the outside they’re learning to live with themselves and it’s “frightening.” Brown, 57, In prison, the reality of being alone is incessant, so it’s easy to understand why some incarcerated people dodge the mantra “we’re all in this together.” Daily, there’s reminded of their timeworn normal as second-class citizens. After decades, it’s no longer a “stressful time.” It’s not a “strange time,” “crazy time,” “difficult time,” “worst of time,” “uncertain time,” “unsure time,” or “unprecedented time,” as has been repeated in past months. In prison, it’s simply time. And this is the anatomy of a quarantine-lockdown at San Quentin. On March 14, 2020, San Quentin’s West Block was placed on quarantine. Before that, some inmates’ visitors received email messages stating the prison was halting all visitation. The prison’s first Daily Program Status Report (ODOR Form 3022A, No. SQ-ll-20-003), PSR in prison slang, stated in part: “all inmates in West Block and Badger Section are on modified program to manage exposure to influenza virus-like symptoms.” A later update to the PSR added North Block on “medical quarantine” to manage influenza. No matter how it’s defined, to prisoners it’s just another lockdown. And it has been a half-baked form of isolation from the beginning when weighed against other lockdowns, particularly after a riot which is more punitive. There are four categories of a PSR: normal program, modified program, lockdown and the state of emergency. Any prisoner who has served 20 years of longer, beginning their term at one of California’s maximum security level-four institutions, will invariably experience all four. To get through the, some have learned to stay ready for the inevitable with a lockdown kit. The PSR detailed what’s allowed to take place, or not, during the modified program at San Quentin. In part, it stated all inmate movement was to be under escort, cell feeding, no general visiting, no legal visiting, no dayroom activities, no recreational activities, no canteen, no packages, only critical workers were allowed to go to their jobs, etc. Inmate kitchen workers, building porters and California Prison Industry Authority (CalPIA) are some of the vital workers. “The state is taking aggressive efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19,” an unsigned and undated Board of Parole Hearings memorandum posted in West Block states. It’s written “on behalf of Jennifer Shaffer, Executive Officer BPH.” “I understand the importance of why they’re doing this, but how do my needs get met to talk to an attorney,” said an inmate who did not want to be identified. He’s already served nearly 30 years on his own term. “It seems pretty unfair to me.” Prisoners, as one might imagine, question everything after they’ve reached the conclusion of what’s often viewed as malevolent justice. They learn quickly to not trust the state. It’s a natural order of “adjustment.” The public doesn’t generally reach that point; even in the face of another in a line of mismanaged emergencies, they still want to believe in the built-in safeguards of the system. “In furtherance of those efforts,” the BPH memo stated, “the following policies will be in place for all parole hearings effective March 16, 2020, until further notice... Observers will not be permitted at parole consideration hearings.” It also stated that the victims and victims’ next of kin, and representatives from the prosecuting agency must appear for the hearing by telephone or videoconference. “Attorneys representing inmates at parole consideration hearings and interpreters will continue to appear personally for parole consideration hearings.” This type of information is usually taken at face value because it’s subject to change. The BPH memo specifically mentions “COVID-19,” yet San Quentin’s PSR states the prison is managing “influenza.” The frequency of conflicting information of this nature gives rise to inmate distrust. Prior to the modified program and quarantine implementation in mid-March, many of the volunteer organizations that come to San Quentin has already moved ahead of the prison because earlier they recognized the urgency of the situation in California and around the world. In doing so, they voluntarily suspended the self-help programs they bring inside the prison for inmates to participate in. “We made the very difficult decision this week to temporarily suspend the College Program while COVID-19 is flaring in California,” a March 12, 2020 Prison University Project (PUP), Mount Tamalpais College (formerly Patten University) letter to its students read. Early on, PUP educators acknowledged what was taking place around the globe and informed its students that “The World Health Organization and local public health officials strongly advise against large gatherings...” Two weeks later, in an update to its students, one PUP supporter wrote, “Judging by the heaps of ‘coping’ advice coming out, people are having to confront the mental and emotional dimensions of physical lockdown. Perhaps out more personal understanding of how social isolation feels will translate into greater compassion for those who are isolated from society, in sight and mind, during normal times.” On March 13, 2020, the self-help program Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP) posted a letter to its participants in West Block. GRIP volunteers also decided to not expose inmates to coronavirus. “It is a classic case of rather being safe than sorry,” the GRIP letter said. “In this case, being safe means drawing from knowledge that there will be a spike in the spread of any contagious virus.” These were not CDCR or government employees heeding the warnings of health care professionals. They’re protective citizens in the local community who volunteer to come inside San Quentin to help inmates change their lives. The last thing they wanted to do is harm the people they assist. Another example was the California Reenty Program (CRP), an organization that aids inmates who will transition back to society. CRP stated in a memo posted in West Block, “We want to protect you from our germs so we will return with a full crew when it’s safe.” According to the PSR, chaplains were allowed to “conduct rounds” so it wasn’t unusual to see the Catholic chapel’s Father George, dressed in black, making his rounds inside West Block wearing an N95 mask above his traditional priest collar as he spoke to inmates through the cell bars. He maintained a relatively safe physical distance while remaining social to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. It’s not hard to imagine that “social distancing” is a common practice for the 2.3 million men, women and children imprisoned in the United States. These are those who’ve been disappeared inside the camera I environments where the grim reality of living in isolation has been defined by many on the outside as the “new normal.” In prison, forced isolation and shelter in place isn’t an aberration or exception to any rule. Conversely, for prisoners it’s the law. Many of those incarcerated are compelled, even encouraged, to become antisocial by practicing social distancing, lest they catch more than a virus. They live in a world where the line between normal and abnormal are blurred. Often times, there is nothing to delineate the nebulous uncertainty that creates a type of emotional distancing which is too often welcomed if one is to survive. Chavez, 44, has been incarcerated since age 18. Emotionally, he’s concerned for his loved ones on the outside. He has an 85-year-old grandmother. Chavez called her to say “I love you with all my heart” because he doesn’t know what may happen, and he’s not sure when or if he will see her or his mother again. “We’re being protected from society,” Chavez said. “This quarantine is not based on us. It’s based on them.” He said that’s because CDCR custody and other staff are the only ones who can bring coronavirus inside the prison. “The primary objectives of the correctional institutions are to protect the public by safely keeping persons committed to the custody of the Secretary of Corrections and Rehabilitation...,” the California Code of Regulations states. Ironically, Chavez is correct. Public safety typically means protecting society from those who are imprisoned because they have transgressed the law. Penitence, it was believed, happened through isolation, physical and social distancing of prisoners from those who observe the law. Coronavirus has seemingly inverted that belief. Now correctional officers are getting paid to protect prisoners from the very communities that sent them to prison. Not all correctional officers who worked in West Block completely fulfilled that duty. In fact, come officers brazenly defied mandatory safety orders. For example, by the end of the fifth week of the lockdown-quarantine, the prison passed out masks to all inmates in West Block; masks manufactured by other inmates who work in CalPIA. Once the masks were passed out, a correctional officer who wasn’t wearing a mask made an announcement over the building PA system at dinner. “Step out with it on, or don’t step out at all.” It was an antagonistic remark that solicited yelling and grumbling through the unit. Inmates took the comment as an “or else” type of threat. Although there were two posted public health memos in West Block stating prisoners and staff must wear masks, at any given time no less than four officers could be seen not wearing a mask. “Do as I say, not as I do,” was the tactic message, even though there was no emergency update to the Code of Regulations, the Institutional Operation Procedures, no Warden’s Bulletin, Administrative Bulletin from CDCR headquarters, change to the state Penal Code, Health & Safety Code, Government Code, case law or any other authority. Two days later the warden issued a memo stating staff “shall” wear masks. On one of the many cruise ships quarantined at sea, a passenger told the media he felt like he was in a prison cell because of his confinement to quarters. The statement juxtaposed with a prison placed on quarantine cause an inmate at San Quentin to comment jokingly that being on lockdown in prison doesn’t make him feel like he’s on a cruise ship. That passenger gas probably never been incarcerated. The cells at San Quentin are about four and a half feet side, ten feet long, and eight feet high. They were designed for one man to occupy. However, with the exceptions of the men in East Block, Condemned Row, two men live in each cell in West Block, North Block, and the Reception Center in South Block. That’s roughly 3,500 men. Numerous inmates at San Quentin have served time at other prisons, hundreds of miles away from their family. Some say they find it laughable that people on the outside are having a hard time sheltering in place for three or four weeks inside a house or apartment with family, cable television, groceries and take-out food. Prison life trumps those gripes. Another obvious retort to prisoners settled-in conditions would likely be that they committed a crime. Perhaps. But they were definitely convicted of one. The punishment for a crime is being sent to prison, though, not death by prison due to medical neglect from overcrowding and poor living conditions that not so long ago resulted in at least one preventable and unnecessary death occurring every week in California prisons. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with a U.S. District Court’s three-judge panel that ruled California had to reduce its prison population and maintain a cap of 137.5% of design capacity. But even as the state makes improvements to its health care system, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is equipped to handle epidemics, pandemics or an emergency with any degree of efficiency. The CDCR’s medial system has been under federal receivership for a decade so there are plenty of eyes monitoring the upshot of COVID-19 in its prisons. When a Legionnaires outbreak took place at San Quentin in 2015, the prison was slow to respond to the emergency. Some CDCR reports to the media said inmates were given bottled water, but that was not true, even though bottled water was brought to the prison. A standard practice is that public information officers answer questions from the media and write press releases. But rarely, if ever, do they visit the cell blocks to talk with inmates during an emergency whether it’s a lockdown after a riot, influenza, or when there’s some other failure in a facility’s aging infrastructure. In past cases of norovirus and influenza outbreaks at San Quentin, prisoners were quarantine in administrative segregation. They were essentially punished for their illness because there was no other place to house them. Because of that, many prisoners refuse to report when they are sick. It’s likely a coronavirus outbreak will be no different. Washington, 75, served five years at San Quentin in the late 1960s. He said the changes from then to now are noticeable on all sides. “I am witness to a drastically sad and sorrowful change in inmates and correctional (staff), as well as medical and mental health providers,” he wrote in a March 18, 2020 letter. When the quarantine started in West Block, Washington said staff was slow to respond. “I would think the medical department would have been to West housing unit way before now, to at least check to see if anyone else was ill.” On March 19, 2020, pursuant to the California Public Records Act (Calif. Gov. Code section 6250 et. seq.), a formal request for “all press releases” provided to the mainstream media, regarding coronavirus, was sent to San Quentin’s public information officer for this story. More than three weeks after the request there was still no response. The media is told one thing, memos and letters contain other information, while inmates lives hang in the balance. It’s one reason some prisoners don’t believe they’re in this with the rest of the country. When one has been marginalized, stripped of citizenship with a civil death, and fed misinformation, it’s easy to see how they become incredulous. Their sentiments are likely to continue as they suffer collateral consequences of incarceration long after they’re released from prison because they still won’t be in it together. To avoid a trip to the hold, some prisoners who become ill with coronavirus, influenza or some other infectious disease are not likely to report it to medical staff. In 2017, during an influenza outbreak, San Quentin News reported on several inmates who were placed on quarantine, in the hole, after they became ill. ( “Deadly influenza virus goes unreported by sick inmates,” June 2017, p.1). Other inmates who were sick refused to cooperate with medical staff because they didn’t want to be punished. When Legionnaires disease hit San Quentin in 2015, prisoners said the administration was slow to respond to that crisis as well ( “Legionnaires Outbreak Strikes San Quentin,” October 2015, p.1; and “Prisoners report on San Quentin health crisis: Legionella outbreak prompts water shutdown,” October 2015, p. 19). The California Code of Regulations, Title 15, Division 3, section 3301, Emergency Operation Plan states: “Each warden must have in effect at all times an Emergency Operations Plan, approved by the Emergency Planning and Management Unit, to assist in the preparation for response to and recovery from “All Hazard” incidents. All hazards incidents are defined as any natural or manmade disasters or accidents that may significantly disrupt institutional operations or programs.” There is no consistency, however, as to how a crisis or emergency is managed at San Quentin. It has varied over the years between wardens and CDCR secretaries, which creates distrust among the inmates. Goodall, 46, has worked as a West Block building porter for about two years. During that time he has worked through lockdowns and quarantines. “The odd part is that during a quarantine, you’re confined to your cell,” he said. “There’s usually a nurse that makes their rounds in the building twice a day, doing temperature checks and logging them.” When West Block was quarantined the first time, from March 14 to March 19, no nurse went to the cells to check temperatures. Between March 20 and March 23, the quarantine was lifted. But on March 24, a second quarantine was imposed. It was only then that medical staff went to each inmates’ cell to take and record temperatures, and to ask questions about any symptoms. But even that wasn’t consistent because some days a nurse never appeared between March 24 and April 2. And it took three weeks for nurses to start specifically visiting some of the chronic care inmates in West Block who have documented compromised immune systems. Nonperformance of duty is a common problem in prison, especially during lockdowns. As the federal receiver Special Master in the Coleman case explained about lockdowns in 2009, “All inmates must spend increasingly larger chunks of their days in their cells. None of this is conducive to the health and well-being of any inmate...” A March 27, 2020 memorandum signed by San Quentin Medical Providers stated, in part, “During this time, you will get asked about symptoms and have your temperature taken at least one (sic) a day.” The memo continued with recommendations about social distancing, washing hands, wiping down surfaces, and the trite remark, “We are all in this together.” The same day (March 27), acting warden Ron Broomfield and acting chief executive officer Matt Verdier issued a signed memorandum that said, “On Thursday, March 26, 2020, we learned that a member of our staff tested positive for COVID-19.” No information was provided as to who the staff member was or what, if any, inmates had been exposed to this person. Like others, the memo ended with “We are all working together to keep the entire ODOR Community safe and well.” Brown, 67, said he’s been incarcerated 51 years come August 2020. On April 6, 2020, he said he was told that his supervisor, a correctional officer, was on a 14-day quarantine. That issue aside, he was rattled by the overall mistreatment of inmates and the impassiveness of the staff. “All the time I’ve been incarcerated, I’ve never been treated this bad, being served ice-cold food,” he said. “I’m fellin' you it’s terrible.” Brown said he complained to the warden about a number of issues such as the meals not being placed in upright warming carts once they were brought to West Block, but instead placed on rubber pallets on the ground floor. He said he was told the food manager is short on staff and didn’t have anyone to monitor the food carts or the food temperature. According to Brown, there were food particles on trays from previous weeks because the kitchen staff and inmates were not properly cleaning the trays after each use. He also complained about the laundry, citing the fact that there had not been a clothing exchange of sheet exchange during the first weeks of the quarantine. There was, however, an exchange of blankets. Brown was later taken to an isolation cell (the hole) in administrative segregation because he’d been exposed to his supervisor who was placed on quarantine. If an outbreak of any kind of contagion strikes San Quentin, Goodall said it’s nearly impossible to isolate inmates from each other. “The cell doors are open bars spaced approximately two inches apart, and the adjoining cell on either side is two feet (in distance) on each side,” he said. “So the six feet social distancing recommended by the Center for Disease COntrol (CDC) isn’t possible at this CDCR facility.” In Goodall’s assessment, “If there is a COVID-19 outbreak here, I’m sure it will kill many of the elderly inmates housed here.” Washington, like many aging prisoners at San Quentin, said he is concerned about what is taking place. “I worry I may not get a chance to see those whom I love and care deeply about anymore.” He didn’t attribute all of the bleak outlook at the prison on its staff. He said “The general population here mainly consist of impressionists and a very few who desire to improve.” Improvement in prison requires adherence to rules and following them, but during each quarantine, and when there’s a normal program, some older prisoners wonder who’s running the prison. They say it’s out of control, in spite of the fact that this is the CDCR’s flagship institution for rehabilitation, filled with “impressionists.” As with most crises and emergencies, there’s always a number of people whose temerity make them vulnerable to extinction. As Albert Einstein said, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity,” and he wasn’t so sure about the universe. As it is in any carceral setting, when “the man” isn’t looking, the environment can turn into a zoo quickly. As George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, “The attempt to tame the wild creatures for instance, broke down almost immediately. They continued to behave very much as before, and when treated with generosity, simply took advantage of it,” albeit in a different context. In the case of West Block, inmates ran around the building during the “modified program” more than they’d be allowed if it were a normal program. But unlike some of the young “invincible” prisoners who acted as if incarceration is a reprieve from the outside, while trying to maintain the social order of thug life, old-school convicts who’ve seen and experienced much more on the inside were still vying for an opportunity to improve so they can home. They’ve had years to prepare for the unexpected and know how to live while the youthful inmates court an untimely death. Wisdom of the years doing time in higher security level prisons has taught some of the West Block OGs (slang for Original Gangsters) to stay prepared by keeping a reserve lockdown supply for inevitable time a riot or other emergency makes it necessary for prison administrators to alsm down all programs. If there is one place a prisoner is certain to do time, it’s in a cell. Master that and everything else is a cakewalk. Coffee, ramen noodles, snacks, toothpaste, soap, books, paper, ink pens, stamps, and envelopes are some of the staples that make a lockdown bearable. As COVID-19 spreads, most OGs defer to health care professional’s recommendations and confine themselves to their cells. They only come out for meals, medication, showers, and an occasional telephone call while the young inmates dance with imminent death. OGs didn’t grow old in prison being fools. Feelings of loneliness, isolation, and anxiety experienced by those on the outside who’ve never had to practice the shelter-in-place ritual at home for a few weeks pales in comparison to what prisoners endure for years and decades on end. There’s nothing new about it, and it’s all normal. Even neglect of every kind is expected in California’s oldest prison. Inadequate health care service is only one facet of doing time in San Quentin. But there are other factors there that reduce a prisoner’s life expectancy. One of them is lack of hope, so a mismanaged pandemic doesn’t exactly breed encouragement. ANother is living in a run-down facility. In 2019, it was reported that 12 of California’s prisons were in need of repair, at a cost approaching nearly $1 billion per prison ( “Twelve CDCD prisons are in dire need of repair,” November 2019, p. 17). To live in a crumbling, weather-beaten institution where little is spent on maintenance (see “What happens when the power goes out in prison” December 2019, p. 6), with little hope of seeing a parole date drives some men to end their lives. Suicide may kill more men than coronavirus if the trend continues. Last year (2019), 36 prisoners took their lives in CDCR prisons. Ten of those occurred in segregated housing units and isolation cells; the same used to quarantine inmates. The national average for suicide in state prisons is 20 percent per 100,000 prisoners, and that alone “is more than double the rate in the general U.S. population,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle ( “Experts, judges, and public official say California’s deaths are the result of a system that for decades failed to provide proper help to the state’s mentally ill prisoners, a population estimated at more than 30,000,” the Chronicle reported. More than two weeks after the initial West Block quarantine, mental health memos and fliers were placed in the housing unit instructing the men that “it’s okay to ask for help,” if they need it. Three weeks after the first quarantine started, videos were put on San Quentin’s close circuit television station for inmates to view. One video was from the Anti Recidivism Coalition, formerly incarcerated individuals giving advice, pep talks and inspiration to inmates. Other videos were broadcast of Center for Disease Control public service announcements that featured White House coronavirus task force experts Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx, and Dr. Jerome Adams. The CDC video recommended the use of hand sanitizer that is 60% percent alcohol, if soap and water are not available. It also stated that more information is available at its website. Inmates in California, however, are prohibited from possessing anything with a significant alcohol base, or from access to the Internet. Other CDCR videos discussed what COVID-19 is, how to stay protected from it, and that the department was “recognizing the value of visituation” during this unprecedented time. That video restated information already made available in memos posted and distributed in West Block and in the PSR. The broadcast was done in English, Spanish, and with the use of sign language for hearing impaired inmates. Brown said San Quentin has “deplorable living conditions” and custody staff are not required to wear face masks on dury, despite CDC recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19. His comment was made during the first month of the lockdown quarantine. “We sit in San Quentin trapped like laboratory mice, waiting to see who will hit the COVID-10 lottery first,” he said. “Only two prices are up for grab. The only problem is no one wants a ticket.” McCoy, 38, has been incarcerated 15 years, but he’s served a prison term previously in other decades. Like many inmates, he knows the lockdown drill but was skeptical about the reason for the change in program. “It’s an excuse for them to hang out and limit their supervision of us,” he said. “All the influenza thing is is like a warm up.” He said if he were to file a grievance and demand real social distancing he’d probably be placed in “the hole,” or in administrative segregation. “We’re not going to get each other sick. It’s the cops and the free staff.” McCoy said it’s prison staff that bring in contaminants, and if not for them inmates would not be affected by coronavirus like on the outside because incarceration and isolation go hand in hand. “Once we get it, it’s like a petri dish in here,” he said. “They’re just protecting themselves. It’s not if it gets here, it’s when. It’s just a matter of time when they take us to a makeshift morgue.” As he stretched out on the asphalt on the lower yard, taking in rays from the sun and breathing fresh air, he looked up to the sky and said “It’s the thinning of the herd.” During most days of the first quarantine, the heater was turned off in parts of West Block. The low temperature and cold air from the bay had many mean “freezing” especially those housed in cells close to the steel doors that open up to the entrance through the rotunda of the building where the design creates the effect of a wind tunnel. Several years earlier staff provided the inmates of the first tier, near the door, with extra blankets to combat the cold, in lieu of adjusting or fixing the heaters. When confined to a chilly cell for weeks on end, it’s difficult for some inmates to maintain normal body temperature. Those with a compromised immune system have a greater health risk, particularly in West Block because the first tier is reserved for older, sicker, and mobility impaired prisoners. Before the first quarantine ended, “George,” a 56-year-old inmate who did not want to be identified, said he went to a medical appointment where he overheard a correctional officer complaining about inmates from West Block, Reception Center, and H-unit dorms all gathered in the same waiting are because there was little to no social distancing. According to George, the officer expressed dissatisfaction about the lack of COVID-19 tests and breathing masks. He said the officer also mentioned that a grievance was going to be filed with the union (California Correctional Peace Officers Association) and the medical staff’s union. Two weeks into the first quarantine-lockdown hybrid, inmate food service workers and correctional staff appeared to have figured out a system on how to coordinate the delivery of meals to the 800-plus men in West Block, even though the food was cold most days. West Block was in horrible condition before the influenza coronavirus crisis. During the first week of the quarantine, meals were served on exposed paper trays, stacked on top of each other and placed in unsanitized California Prison I Nd ustry Authority (Cal PI A) bread racks that are loaded on and off trucks. The food was usually cold because it sat in the building more than an hour before the last man was fed. And there are no carts to keep the food warm as it sits on pallets on ground near the West Block wind tunnel. There’s supposed to be an established practice and procedure to cell feed prisoners at each institution. Typically, the information exists in the prison’s institutional operation procedures or in the Department Operation Manual (DOM). It’s not something new at San Quentin. Cell feeding takes place year round at San Quentin. Death Row prisoners and those in administrative segregation receive in-cell meals every day. But, when the modified program hit West Block, the protocol for feeding inmates turned into a trial-and-error scenario. And it’s never known if, or how many, inmates become ill from the dirt, dust and vermin inside the building where it’s not unusual to see a roach. West Block, it should be understood, is not a dining hall or kitchen. It is a housing unit where many inmates say the health standards are compromised twofold during lockdowns and quarantines. Each tier, there are 45 cells on one half of West Block, locally identified as either “bay side” or “yard side.” The cells were designed for one person to occupy. For the last 40 years, two men have been housed in each cell. About 180 men live on each of the five tiers in the building. Do the math. To feed the inmates in West Block while on lockdown, half a tier of about 90 men leave out of their cell and form a single file line, about two to three feet apart from each other. No masks were issued to the prisoners during the first five weeks, although a few had managed to acquire some and others tied handkerchiefs and bandanas around their face. The majority of inmates were unprotected when they left their cell. The building porters who were considered “critical workers” double as kitchen workers and handle food, some with their mouths exposed as they hover over open trays. They often were not issued hair nets or aprons to wear which is a requirement for assigned kitchen workers whose job it is to handle food. To casually observe inmates and custody staff, there is no recognizable social distancing or physical distancing. It’s business as usual, even during the “influenza” quarantine, and custody staff is complicit and indifferent in all the takes place. Unlike the modern prisons in California built in the 1980s and 1990s, San Quentin’s West Block (and North, East, and South) doesn’t have a day room for recreational activity. It has two fifteen-feet-wide hallways that run the length of a football field. The walls are painted beige with a little black trim that match the color of the 13 bars on each cell door. There are 12 telephones mounted on the “yard side” wall for inmates to make monitored and recorded collect calls. There are three heavy duty ironing boards bolted to the wall and irons inside a metal box above them tethered to a five foot wire so they cannot be used as a weapon. Benches are bolted to the floor below the phones. Other benches are bolted on the “bay side.” On both sides of the building are four to six holding cages that are a little larger than a telephone booth, and there are five four-man steel tables bolted to the floor at the back of each side of the building. There are also 20 showers behind a gate in the back of the building. Above ground level, the walking space is about four feet wide on tiers two through five. At the front entrance to the cell block is where correctional officers work. Most of the time they sit and congregate when nothing is going on. Above all that, mounted on the interior walls are two catwalks at different heights. They each wrap around the inside of the building. The lowest catwalk is protected by coiled razor wire. A correctional officer patrols the unit on the catwalks, armed a mini-14 rifle, block gun and side arm. The sight, stench and noise lets everyone know it’s a penitentiary. It’s not secret that space is limited inside West Block’s makeshift day room. It’s a building designed for half its current population. Social distancing, while it sounds good in theory, is impossible. This is particularly the situation with the telephones that hundreds of men unthinkingly spray spittle into as they talk. The PSR says “Phone calls are allowed with cleanings between uses.” At the beginning of the quarantine-lockdown, the phones were cleaned by a building porter once in the morning, and maybe again in the afternoon or evening. It was up to a health conscious inmate to take precautions by cleaning the phone before he used it to talk. Most were not, so the use of a disinfected phone was rare. However, by the sixth week, a routine was established, and a porter was wiping phones off with bleach after each inmate was done using it. Contrary to public service announcements and the words spoken by politicians and healthcare providers, many inmates understood they were not “all in this together.” The world beyond the walls of San Quentin doesn’t belong to prisoners. Beyond the walls is a foreign land, as distant as the next continent. Social, emotional, and physical distancing separates prisoners from others called “people.” It’s an intentional part of the punishment that chokes rehabilitation, and no one knows it better than those who are incarcerated, especially when there is a crisis on the other side of those walls. Prison is a different world where other realities are created. One day, between two of the quarantines in West Block, about 140 prisoners were allowed time on the lower recreation yard. It was a partially cloudy day, not uncommon for the Bay Area. From an incline on the yard, Mt. Tamalpais could be seen rising in the distance. A handful of Asian inmates played card games and exercised in their self-segregated area. Men of different ehtnic backgrounds and races walked laps around the track, and others played chess. The blacks settled on two separate half-court games of basketball as their peers watched from tables adjacent the court. Hispanic inmates kicked a soccer ball on patches of grass around the baseball outfield, and other prisoners were worked out on bars placed in different areas of the yard. They were all in San Quentin together, and the scene looked like any other normal day of racial distancing in an American prison. Similar to any other day, men, sea gulls, Canadian geese, black birds, and pigeons went about their daily lives. This was their reality, and it doesn’t change with the real or imagined reality of life on the outside. Mass shootings like Columbine and Sandy Hook, the busted dot com boom, September 11th, hanging chads, Gore versus Bush, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the historic election of President Obama, the “war on terror,” financial meltdowns, “too big to fail” on Wall Street, Occupy Wall Street, climate change, President Trump’s election, the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Oscar Grant, Black Lives Matter, MeToo, SARS, MFRS, H1N1 virus, coronavirus or a death in the family are other aspects in a dimension of time that elapses as prisoners do time. The continuation of a past existence becomes remote after 10, 20, 30, or 40 years and counting. During another West Block outing on the yard, half the building of about 400 inmates went about their daily lives under the blue sky and 70-plus degree of spring California weather. Many were dressed in state-issued blues, the color faded from years of constant use and rays emitted by the sun. Two correctional officers each wore particle masks pulled down around their neck. Dozens of other correctional staff did not have a mask to protect themselves or others. Inmates who possessed commercial and makeshift masks also allowed them to hang down away from their faces. A scant number of other inmates wore their masks infrequently, pacing the yard as time continued to stand still and move on without them synchronously. No officer or inmate appeared to be visibly worried, concerned, or anxious about life inside or outside. But incarceration dictates that one remain in a state of crisis, emergency and state of war. The only noticeable change to daily life at San Quentin was the closed education building, San Quentin News, Addiction Recovery Center, gymnasium,computer coding, vocational training, and part of the Prison Industry Authority—all shut down “until further notice.” A flat-bed truck, bobtail, and fork lift drove across the yard from the prison warehouse with supplies. From a distance, it was clear the boxes were marked with clearing agents and food was destined for the hospital, kitchen, canteen, and housing units. It’s the old normal where billions of dollars are spent each year to preserve the status quo of California prisons. There’s hardly anything new about it. Two weeks into quarantine, CDC fliers and others were posted heavily throughout West Block. One read, in bold letters, “Prevent the spread of illness.” It stated much of what had already been communicated, such as avoid close contact; keep germs to yourself; cover your nose and mouth; clean hands save lives; avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth; and practice good health habits. Much the same as people on the outside, not all inmates heeded the warnings. Some acted as criminally reckless and uncaring about their safety and others’ as the day of the crimes that landed them in prison. Because of their disconnect from the disruption of society and presence of death in the wake of coronavirus, many seemed unmoved by what was taking place. The younger prisoners, particularly the blacks, acted as if they were invincible; like their black lives didn’t matter. There wasn’t even a trace of the mindset that said “lookout for number one.” They failed repeatedly to follow basic guidelines for practicing safe living. They didn’t follow instructions, suggestions, and they violated every rule, regulation and policy with impunity while some officers looked on and others made futile attempts to “correct” their foolish behavior. In this dire situation of possible life and death, this group, and a few others, behaved like they had a natural immunity to death. They treated the pandemic like there was a vaccine or a cure. News that 70% of those affected by coronavirus in major cities were black and brown was seemingly of no interest to them and had little or no meaning as they watched the nation’s health care system in distress. “Once the virus is into the prisons, detention centers and juvie homes, what will happen in these overcrowded, understaffed hellholes?” Revolution newsletter asked. “How many will suddenly have what will be in fact ‘death sentences’?” After one week, in response to the first quarantine, California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) issued a March 20, 2020 memorandum to CDCR wardens and chief executive officers. The memo said, in part, that CCHCS is “taking necessary precautions in an effort to reduce exposure to both inmates and staff.” The memo stated “Immediately upon entry, all inmates must be screened for symptoms of influenza-like illness, including COVID-19.” The screening was for prisoners who were transferred from jails, returning from court, fire camps, outside hospitals and other locations. Screening inmates included measuring temperatures, questions about coughs, fever and any breathing difficulty. Based on the screening, inmates were to be placed in either isolation, quarantine, or other housing. “Social distancing strategies should be implemented as much as possible for all individuals,” the CCHCS memo stated, adding, “it is imperative that social distancing be enforced for the most vulnerable patients” which are those particularly at high risk for infection. However, a March 24, 2020 San Quentin Warden’s Bulletin addressed to “All Staff and Inmates” rendering screening of prisoners temporarily unnecessary, stating, “effective March 24, CDCR will suspend intake of all incarcerated persons into both Adult State Prisons and Division of Juvenile Justice facilities for a minimum of 30 days.” The Warden’s Bulletin also said the parole board was “developing a process” for conducting parole hearings by video conference, and “BPH has been directed to cease conducting in-person parole hearings for 60 days and postponed any scheduled parole hearings until April 13...” Three weeks into the quarantine, information was provided to inmates in West Block, in a letter dated March 30, 2020, from the state's top prison official, CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz. “We have stopped programs, we have limited movement, and we are no longer allowing volunteers and program providers to come into our institutions,” he wrote. Weeks into a major disruption of the program at San Quentin and 34 other CDCR adult prison,s not to mention state, national and world news, prisoners were told what they already knew. “Suspending programs was not a decision made lightly — it was done to protect the people who live and work in our institutions,” Diaz wrote. He outlined a plan that inmate phone call service provider Global Tel Link (GTL) set in place to provide free phone calls for those who accept collect calls from prisoners each week. Diaz emphasized “emotional well-being is also our priority” to ease the mind and keep families in touch. There was no other communication from the secretary through the month of April. Still on a modified program, at the end of week four, during a third quarantine that began on April 10, some inmates who’d been moving around the prison were overheard saying San Quentin’s administration had moved bunks into its gymnasium, something that had not been done for a decade. It was not clear if the extra bunks was a solution to quarantine inmates, create more social distancing, or isolate those suffering from COVID-19. About 110 inmates were later moved to the gym: 22 from each of the five dorm housing units. Strangely enough, those inmates were allowed to walk to the north dining hall to eat their meals while North Block and West Block inmates were forced to eat in their cells. The practice was inconsistent when it came to maintaining social distancing. Added to the inconsistency of policy was the fact that some correctional officers continued to not wear masks, even after the April 21, 2020 memorandum was posted in the West Block building. “Staff working or performing duties or institutional grounds shall wear a cloth mask covering at minimum,” the memo stated. A few officers did observe the directive and wore a mask while others did so only when a lieutenant entered the building. Inmate behavior was no better in West Block. Between scheduled unlocks for meals, medication, medical appointments, showers and phone calls it was an ongoing game of cat and mouse between some inmates and correctional officers. As the saying goes, “When the cat’s away, the mice will play.” Supplant the words cat and mice with officer and prisoner to play a traditional game of cops and robbers in its lowest form. It’s exhausting on both ends to watch petty rule violations ofcrooks and the indolence of their jailers. In the words of Orwell, the “wild creatures” take advantage of generosity, and laziness. But in all fairness, not every inmate comported himself like a caged animal, despite the fact that’s what’s been expected of them. Understandably, some prisoner’ behavior is tied to the fact that they don’t believe they have skin in the game because they’re already sheltered in place, provided for, and “protected” by the state. But as Revolution pointed out in March, the U.S. “is woefully unprepared to deal with massive outbreaks of COVID-19.” The dregs in prison need not look further than Hurricane Katrina to see that help will not be on the way when the storm plows them deeper into the vast chasm of confinement. This is because prisoners are people typically struck by the consequence of societal failure and they are incidental in the grand scheme of things. Conversely, society has no idea the life and inmate leads because prisons are places of secrecy, designed to keep the public out as much as they are constructed to keep people incarcerated. The latest reports show California’s crowded prisons are operating at about 134% of design capacity. And the indifference to those suffering as a result in nothing short of criminal. San Quentin, like other prisons, is a ripe environment for communicable disease and epidemics, Medical does one thing and custody does another as if neither side is working together. For example, at the end of week seven, the start of the fourth quarantine on May 2nd, a nurse threatened an inmate with a write-up rule violation if he did not allow her to take his temperature. No such “rule” exists. During the previous three coronavirus quarantines in West Block inmates refused temperature checks without incident. The following day the same inmate declined to have his temperature checked and a different nurse simply moved on without comment. Given the fact that the building officers allowed inmates to do everything imaginable to spread the virus, it seemed that writing an inmate up for not wanting his temperature taken would have been the least of their priorities. All was not lost at San Quentin, though, It is the state’s flagship prison for rehabilitation. Because of that, the term “back to basics” that the outside world was reacquainting itself with wasn’t a new concept to the adroit and resourceful men housed at the Bastille by the Bay. The older, seasoned convicts who’ve worked to change their lives for the better have learned to move backward in time and employ old methods to get things done. When some of them entered the prison system decades ago, sheltered in place as a result of a criminal conviction, with a lengthy sentence, under deadlier circumstances, the dictates of camera I Darwinism and a program of “respect” for themselves and others was their only way forward. An occasional visit, telephone call and letters filled the void left by their dislocation from society. After decades, emptiness becomes a natural way of life, and after a while, prisoners learn to not worry themselves with trivial matters like jobs, utilities, rent, the Internet, health insurance, meals and what eventually become meaningless alarms that create anxiety in the free world. The CDCR takes care of its prisoners minimally with its ever increasing multi-billion dollar annual budget. Prisoners are its cash cow that allows tens of thousands of state employees to feed at the public trough funded by tax dollars, in the name of “public safety.” Ironically, in an almost fictional twist, the correctional officers who once took an oath to protect the public from convicted felons had to do an about face and were paid to protect prisoners from the public; and for good reason. If too many prisoners die of coronavirus, many CDCR officers would join the ranks of America’s working-class of 30 million people and growing who are out of work and applying for unemployment benefits. While some prisoners may not feel they are in this together, they’re a large part of the reason others in society believe they’re in it at all. And for all the rhetoric and propaganda produced by prison officials and health care providers in memos, letters and videos, some inmates see it as nothing more than an effort by the state to position itself early to defend against future medical malpractice and civil liability law suits. That, on its face, seemed to be the underlying strategy in the event there is a failure to prevent mass casualties. Contributory negligence, however, on the part of irresponsible and “invisible” inmates could perhaps be a partial defence, because neither side, prisoner or prison, is without blame. At the end of the fifth week of modified program, five punch bottles of hand sanitizer, made by the Science Policy Group at University of California San Francisco, was provided to inmates in West Block. Surprisingly, no hand soap was issued during the third week of the quarantine. A red warning was on the five-ounce bottle that read, “Do not drink. Not safe for consumption.” More than five weeks after the quarantine started, San Quentin Medical Providers circulated a letter that stated, “The CDCR has reporting COVID-19 cases among officers and inmates across California. At the time of this letter, we have had no cases among our patients.” The letter said Governor Newsom’s shelter-in-place order will continue, “at least until May 3rd” and “PIA is currently working very hard to make cloth masks for the inmate population... they will be distributed soon.” Inmates who work in CalPIA at other prisons also manufacture paper jump suits used by the CDCR to transport prisoners between prisons. At San Quentin they make furniture and mattresses. One day about 40 to 50 of those inmates were seen leaving work at the end of their shift. Because they’re designated “critical workers,” they continued to construct what was viewed as non-essential items. One CalPIA inmate worker said the furniture that was built was stacking up because, “it ain’t been shipped nowhere.” In light of the “suspend intake of all incarcerated persons,” the question was raised why the surplus of paper jump suits was not being donated as PPE for the outside medical community, if everyone was truly in this together. The answer came in the sixth week of the quarantine when about 100 prisoners were unexpectedly transferred from San Quentin to Mule Creek State Prison and Corcoran State Prison. Some inmates had no idea which prisons they were going to, nor did they understand the criteria for transfer. Most speculated that it had to due to COVID-19 and social distancing. By the end of the sixth week, a common shell game of shuffle-the-prisoners took place when inmates were moved between H-unit dorms, West Block and North Block. And each day the quarantine became more of an absurd spectacle inside Wes Block as new fliers were posted. One flier, for example, had a CDCR logo on it and was titled “Social Distancing and Bed Position for Congregate Settings..” It instructed inmates to sleep with their heads in opposite directions on their bunks, as if that would create significant distance in the four and a half food wide by ten foot cell designed for one man to live inside. The flier depicted various bunk illustrations to show inmates how to sleep and stated in part: “Please continue to exercise preventive measures...” Inmates looked at the flier and laughed at the suggestion. The non-profit Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) published an April report that said “the criminal justice system continues to hum along as though nothing has changed.” It’s what prisoners have said all along. PPI added, “Most prisons and many jails have done very little to reduce the population density that puts both incarcerated people and staff at grave risk.” “There are 51 (coronavirus) cases at the California Institution for Men in Chino, which relies heavily on crowded dormitories,” The Daily Recorder reported. “Eight three Corrections staff have tested positive.” Figures released by the CDCR reported 79 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 at seven prisons, according to The Recorder. Mismanaged or not, coronavirus is not likely to destroy the men at San Quentin. It’s plausible the disease will strengthen the humanity of those who survive it, and define this stage of their physical, mental and spiritual evolution. Much of the humanity at San Quentin doesn’t come from the state. It’s imported from the outside. During the lockdown, none of the inmates anticipated what came in the seventh week. Just when the idea was starting to take root that prisoners were not in the pandemic “together” with the rest of the nation, the Prison University Project (PUP), led by its executive director, Jody Lewen, with the support of acting warden Broomfield, let the men know that people do care about them. The nonprofit, its staff, friends and supporters donated care packages “to all 4,000 residents of San Quentin,” a PUP April 2020 letter addressed to “friends” said. “Please know that a huge number of people on the outside are thinking about you, and trying to figure out how to help.” It was the shout heard around the prison, and students, former students and non-students had only good things to say about PUP’s kindness. Brown was on the yard when Lewen pulled up to the gym in rented U-Haul truck with care packages. “I think they (PUP) went above and beyond,” he said. “It wasn’t lip service, and a lot of guys expressed their gratitude to Jody and her staff.” The packages contained four envelopes, two first-class “Forever” postage stamps, two ink pens, one 5x8 inch lined writing tablet, several scientific news articles about COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, one bar of soap, one package of beef jerky, tune and trail mix. Inmates sai they knew it was no small undertaking to obtain the warden’s approval, purchase the items, assemble the packages and deliver them to the prison. “That was huge,” says Ali, 50. “At least I wasn’t forgotten. That shows stewardship.” “Nobody expected that” from PUP, said Williams, 59, whose been incarcerated 20 years. “I think that was a good move. They go above and beyond for the students. It was really a surprise.” He was previously enrolled in PUP courses and is still on its student list. He said he remembered times the college staff went out of their way for students by doing things such as getting them out of their cells during modified program to attend class. Gestures like PUP’s stand out to prisoners, and this latest came as a fourth medical quarantine was imposed on West Block by the end of the seventh week. Hope is what keeps some men alive at San Quentin. Many of them tuned in regularly to watch Gov. Newsom’s daily press conferences. They said his early top-down decisiveness to manager California's part of the coronavirus probably made a big difference. Others said they were hopeful the federal courts, the Prison Law Office, the warden, health care workers, prisoner advocacy groups, family, friends and other stakeholders were keeping an eye on the incarcerated. Where the state could have failed miserably at San Quentin, or quite possible may at the expense of thousands of its wards, history will reveal the final truth of the 2009 Special Master: “The convergence of tough-on-crime policies and an unwillingness to expend the necessary funds to support the population growth has brought California’s prisons to the breaking point.” (182:2-4) More than a decade later, those words now ring true to the nation. Inmates may be in this crisis together, even if they are the last unbroken link in the American chain of events. About the author Kevin D. Sawyer is an African American native of San Francisco, California, born in 1963. He has written numerous unpublished short stories, memoirs, essays, poems and journals on incarceration and other subjects. Some of his work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus, The Life of the Law, The Pioneer, PEN America, Brothers in Pen anthologies, Iron City Magazine, Wall City, San Francisco Bay View, 580 Split, Street Spirit, the Harvard Journal of African American Policy, and the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons. Sawyer is the associate editor for San Quentin News and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). He’s a 2019 PEN America Honorable Mention in nonfiction, a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, and he was on the News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award. Prior to his incarceration 22 and a half years ago, Sawyer worked 14 continuous years in the telecommunications industry for several corporations. He’s a certified electrician through the National Center for Construction Education and Research and a practiced guitar and piano player. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in mass communication with a special broadcasting option from California State University, Hayward, and a Diploma as a paralegal from Blackstone Career Institute. He is currently working on a novel.

Author: Sawyer, Kevin D.

Author Location: California

Date: 2020

Genre: Essay

Extent: 21 pages

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