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The tent inside San Quentin State Prison.

San Quentin State Prison continues to stumble and swerve in response to the COVID-19 crisis. There is little regard for a prisoner’s voice or agency.

“We’re calling it volunteering, but, really, you’re being volun-told,” the correction officer said to more than a dozen prisoners on October 21.

The men had been called out of their cells that morning and told to report to the small side yard in South Block’s Badger section. Officers explained the administration’s new plan to separate these prisoners into an isolated housing unit, where they’d be expected to sit on-call as an emergency critical workforce whenever kitchen crews were quarantined and couldn’t serve the institutional meals.

“This is all about making sure we can provide everyone here with two hot trays and one lunch a day,” said an officer. “Remember what happened before, when there were no available kitchen workers and we had to contract an outside food vendor? We don’t want to have to go through that again.”

The outside food contract reportedly cost San Quentin (SQ) and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) over $7 million during a four-week span during the prison’s outbreak in July.

The next big COVID resurgence could hit at any moment.

Plus a rash of new positive test results from kitchen workers housed in multiple units points to a common spreader event. Unconfirmed murmurs say one of SQ’s kitchen staff recently tested positive, and had worked enough shifts to infect many more incarcerated workers.

The situation reveals an inherent weakness of relying on weekly testing. The window of COVID-19 transmission by infected outside staff remains open.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) this same week released stricter new guidelines redefining “close contact” and the ease and speed of spreading the coronavirus in only minutes.

Public Health protocols at San Quentin mandate that whenever a new positive case pops up, the infected person gets removed from the unit and the entire building must be placed under quarantine for 14 days without any new positives. Prisoners cannot leave the building to go to their job assignments.

Badger section was currently under quarantine, as a result of two positive test results on October 16.

When Badger clears quarantine, the officers said prisoners would get moved out of the unit and into the prefabricated FEMA tent on the SQ baseball field.

The tent was originally set up in July to accommodate the deluge of infected prisoners, but has since sat empty since the vast majority of cases reached resolution.

The two officers fielded questions, but gave no clear answers. They claimed to have no knowledge of the criteria used to select the prisoners slated to be moved. They said they were just following orders.

“Why us? How did our names come up?” prisoners wanted to know. “What if we don’t want to go?”

Officers P and J said that this was only a tentative list, no telling who would ultimately be called to move.

“When your building officers tell you it’s time to move, refuse to go,” said Officer J, “but you’ll probably receive paper on that.”

He was referring to a Rules Violation Report (RVR), a disciplinary write-up that lingers permanently on a prisoner’s record and reflects badly on their rehabilitative efforts. Even a nonviolent RVR can destroy a lifer’s chance at being found suitable for parole.

The very next day, the urgent need for kitchen workers became clear. Breakfast arrived cold: two box lunches, a milk, and an apple.

And although no clarifications were given about Badger being taken off quarantine, officers notified roughly 20 prisoners that they would be moved to the tent within hours.

Due to limited free space in the FEMA tent and few electrical outlets, prisoners were ordered to leave a lot of their personal property behind in storage, including all appliances, like their tvs, hotpots, and fans. Each person was issued one ice chest-sized plastic box to carry their travel belongings.

Two guys on the list refused to go.

“I’ve been to the tent before. There’s no way I’m going back,” said 27-year-old Travis, who said he had severe asthma. “I caught the virus because San Quentin kept moving us around and mixing us with infected cases.”

Travis has several years left on his determinate sentence, but hopes he will be considered for early release after an October 20 federal court ordered CDCR to reduce San Quentin’s incarcerated population by 50%. “I have a family waiting for me,” he said.

Another prisoner Anthony didn’t want to go, but he couldn’t risk getting written up by refusing to move to the tent. With a current life-term sentence, his potential freedom hung in the balance.

“This is so absurd,” said Anthony, trying to decide which personal items to take and which to leave behind. “Since the start of the outbreak, I’ve been moved eight times.”

On October 22, the two men who were removed from Badger after testing positive on October 16, were returned to the unit on October 22 after further tests came back negative. The original tests were false positives.

But on October 24, construction crews were seen erecting additional tents out on the baseball field, and an entirely different group of prisoners were housed in the tented unit on October 25.

It is the COVID shuffle at San Quentin.

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.

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.