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Image by United Nations COVID-19 Response via Unsplash

I was still washing up, getting dressed, putting on my cloth mask and gloves, and going to work at 3 a.m. as an incarcerated critical kitchen worker well after COVID-19 arrived at San Quentin State Prison.

I couldn’t stop at that point. I had made a commitment to ride out the pandemic as a frontline worker. Very few people wanted to help feed the incarcerated population. A lot of incarcerated people were saying, “Hell, no, you’re crazy. I’m not working in no kitchen, especially right now when COVID-19 is here.” 

Yes, I did know I was crazy to put my life on the line. All my co-workers probably felt the same way. We didn’t have enough personal protective equipment. The prison administration rarely gave us soap to wash our hands. Prison staffers couldn’t care less whether we lived or died. They were walking around wearing their masks like chin guards.

I knew that there was no benefit in reporting to work. But I wanted to help my community. I felt it was the right thing to do. And I thought I would probably get punished if I didn’t show. So I kept going and I tried to be careful. I only removed my cloth mask when it was time to eat, drink or shower. And a few times when my voice was too muffled for someone to understand what I was saying. And I kept washing my hands and social distancing.

But I never stood a chance against COVID-19.

It was late June. I remember waking up to prepare for work and my entire body was aching, all the way down inside of my bones. I could barely move my limbs. The entire right side of my body was paralyzed by stiffness. It felt like I’d been in a bad accident. At first I thought maybe I either worked out too hard or laid the wrong way while sleeping. I tried stretching and rotating my arms and legs clockwise and counterclockwise to relieve the stiffness. But it only increased the pain.

As I climbed out of bed and stood on my feet, I immediately began to feel fatigue and nausea, so I sat down on the toilet stool. Too weak to move, I just sat there brushing my teeth, then washing my face, wondering what was wrong with me. Even putting on my clothes required more labour than usual.

When I finally got dressed and went to work, the pain grew progressively worse. I tried to shake it loose but it gripped me tighter. I felt more fatigue, more nausea and dizziness. And then came  a pounding migraine. I also couldn’t stand for long. I either leaned against something or just sat down whenever I could. Everything was so labour intensive, I couldn’t focus. Whether I was separating food pans, putting food in a cart, wiping a counter top, mopping a floor, or simply talking or walking, my body kept telling me, “Dude, you’re sick.”

I didn’t return to work after that day. The North Block Housing Unit was placed on a modified quarantine program and the Marin Public Health Department came in and started testing every inmate for COVID-19.

I was tested on June 22. My results were positive on June 23, according to the paperwork. But I didn’t get the paperwork confirming I actually had COVID-19 until a month later. I just assumed I had it.

But I knew others got their test results immediately. Within a week, hundreds were called on the housing unit’s loudspeaker to roll up their property. They were being dispersed into administrative segregation units throughout the facility — where prisoners are usually sent for punishment — to be quarantined.

Meanwhile, they still didn’t call me. But I lost my sense of smell. I experienced tightness in my chest and shortness of breath. I got the chills. I had a dry cough and on occasion I hyperventilated. I kept saying to myself 14 days, for some stupid reason. All I have to do is make it 14 days. And I prayed, God, please let me make it. 

Sometimes I thought I was on the verge of going “man down,” my heart was beating so fast from palpitations. But I kept telling myself to stay strong. You’ll get better. The last thing I wanted to do was scream for help. Hearing all the alarms,I knew other incarcerated people probably needed it more than me. So I just stayed in bed, mostly sleeping, for several weeks.

I was too weak to read, write, clean or do much of anything but sleep. When I was awake, I focused on the pain. I was taking 12 ibuprofens a day, plus fever reducers, Vicks VapoRub, allergy meds, cough drops, vitamins — whatever looked like it could help me, I took it. I drank lots of water and tea and forced myself to eat. 

At one point, my asthma bothered me whenever I laid on my back in bed. So I laid on my side, periodically holding my arms above my head, taking deep breaths. I also used my inhaler frequently, taking about four to six puffs a day. I couldn’t stand on my feet for long. I experienced vertigo and nausea whenever I got up to use the restroom.

It felt like I was dying. But I didn’t tell anybody I was sick — not family, not friends, nobody. I knew this news would only traumatize my loved ones, or provoke prison staff to move me further into the bowels of the prison. So I suffered in silence.

Every incarcerated person I’ve talked to who caught COVID-19, who was symptomatic and survived, agrees that this is not like the flu. COVID-19 definitely tries to kill you. The effect on our bodies after its brutal assault is very significant and long lasting. Incarcerated people are telling me they experience pain like they never had before. They complain about being short of breath after doing meager tasks, being winded walking up the stairs, and that they feel like a shell of their former selves. All I can do is nod my head yes every time I hear this. “That’s what I’m feeling,” I say.

Many of us are still recovering. We are now wondering about blood clots, inflammation, damage to our lungs, hearts and our brains. We aren’t getting post-COVID exams. And the medical department here is still in shambles.

A few months ago San Quentin was one of the safest places you could be if you wanted to avoid COVID-19. But then those buses from the California Institution for Men arrived with 121 incarcerated passengers, some showing symptoms of COVID-19. And now, after almost 3,000 infections and 27 deaths, San Quentin is considered one of the most unsafe places in America.

The authorities still haven’t released all the names and photos of the incarcerated people who died here. But I knew some of them. I worked with them in the kitchen or attended college classes with them. It’s sad that they’re gone. They didn’t have to die.

And I didn’t have to risk my life. I had no incentive for it. I have a life sentence for violent crimes. I’m not even considered to be human, according to public opinion. I can’t change, many say. But I wanted to help out my community. I wanted to be a part of the solution and not the problem.

San Quentin now operates very differently from how it did before the outbreak. After many of us recovered and the number of infections dropped below 200, prison staff started taking incarcerated critical workers into the dining hall to be trained on how to safely work in the midst of this deadly virus. We also received training on how to wear our new N-95 masks. And we now have access to a lot more personal protective equipment.

Not everyone saw us as brave, or even human, during the San Quentin outbreak. But the warden did mention in a memorandum that we are all members of the same San Quentin community. The associate warden also talked about how valuable we are in maintaining operations at the prison. And CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz awarded nearly all incarcerated people in California prisons three months of extraordinary conduct credits before he resigned.

“While this will in no way make up for the multitude of changes and impacts to your lives this pandemic has necessitated,” Diaz said,” I hope it will play a part in recognizing your sacrifice and the role you continue to play in keeping the institution safe and peaceful, which enable staff to focus on providing care to those who are ill.”

What I appreciate most about these prison administrators’ remarks is that they shine some light upon our humanity. I also appreciate that now all essential service workers, corrections officers, nurses and incarcerated critical workers wear N-95 masks, face shields, paper gowns and gloves. We all pretty much look the same in our protective gear. We are all better protected.

In the end, we all suffered trauma through this experience. Many nurses and corrections officers, like those incarcerated, caught COVID-19. Many of us suffered its ill effects. We had to hear about or watch people die. So we all got a lesson in empathy from COVID-19. It’s a lot harder now, then it was before the outbreak, to tell who made the greatest sacrifice. It’s a lot harder now to tell which one of us is not human.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online 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.