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Prisoners inside San Quentin Prison who survived the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 weren’t “all in it together” as people outside were urged to be throughout the pandemic. Before the year ended, however, the state of California’s indifference and incompetence made sure prisoners were in it together — in being reminded that our lives don’t matter. 

In 2020, I lived through the worst infectious disease outbreak in San Quentin’s 169-year history, a modern-day state failure on par with what took place 50 years ago at Attica State Prison in New York when more than 40 prisoners, guards and civilians were massacred by the state.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread around the United States, San Quentin was placed on the “modified program,” as stated in the prison’s Daily Program Status Report at the time. This program is a virtual lockdown. It’s similar to administrative segregation, or the Hole, but with access to all personal property and other limited privileges such as telephone calls and a few hours of recreation time out of the cell each week.

Even though Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in California, there has never been one declared at the prison. Yet we lived in virtual lockdown for more than a year.

At the start of 2020, I began writing in my personal journal. It was the first time in more than 22 years I wrote in a journal during my incarceration. At the time, I had no idea so much sickness and death was just over the horizon for thousands of inmates and prison staff at this Bastille by the Bay.

On Saturday, March 14, 2020, prisoners in West Block were the first to be placed on the modified program. Other cell blocks followed, even though there were no known cases of the virus at the prison. Volunteers and visitors were no longer allowed inside the prison.

I first recorded COVID-19 statistics on March 26, 2020, 12 days after the lockdown began. At the time, the U.S. passed China and Italy with the number of recorded coronavirus infections, and recorded about 1,000 deaths from the virus. Still, San Quentin remained unscathed.

The Transfer

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) placed more than 3,000 San Quentin prisoners in harm’s way when it transferred 121 prisoners from the California Institute for Men (CIM) in Chino to San Quentin in late May 2020. Many of those transferred prisoners were infected with COVID-19, according to the state’s official version of how the virus spread inside the prison. However, some prisoners believe they were infected deliberately when tested for the virus, a theory not so unimaginable given the nation’s history and treatment of incarcerated persons in the past.

The first prisoner to test positive for coronavirus at San Quentin was on June 1, 2020, two days after the CIM transfer of infected prisoners who had not been tested before arriving at San Quentin.

After that, the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections increased exponentially from zero to more than 1,000 by the end of June, according to the CDCR’s website.

Shortly after most prisoners were tested in the summer of 2020, San Quentin became one of the largest hot spots in the country for COVID-19 infections per capita. More than 2,200 inmates — over 70% of the population — and hundreds of staff were infected.

Before havoc struck, I had written, “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.”

By June 2020, I watched as prison conditions deteriorated. There was no social distancing. Food services collapsed under the weight of state incompetence, inmate apathy, and poor administrative oversight from the governor’s office to the warden. At the end of this broken chain was the custody staff who seemed to receive a new set of orders daily, if not hourly. Posters and memos were placed around the cell block stating the obvious “wash your hands” or “maintain social distance.” Some memos were ridiculous, like the one that told us to sleep with our head in the opposite direction from our cellmate in those tiny cages. Some memos were signed by prison officials who never visited the cell block. They were perfunctory attempts by the state to do something. I wasn’t surprised when the situation worsened. 

Hell Breaks Loose

The first week in July was the worst. All hell broke loose inside West Block. Corrections officers’ radios broadcast were heard all day, every day. Alarms sounded every day in West Block after prisoners were heard shouting, “Man down.”

“Control, I have a man down in Cell One, West Seven, complaining about feeling dizzy.” Then the loud buzzing of an alarm would sound and medical staff would arrive with wheelchairs, golf carts or gurneys to take the fallen away. Some never returned.

Another broadcast: “Medical, man down, 2-11, West Block.” I was sure that was for Mack “Spanky” Brown, who lived above and three cells over. Brown had been incarcerated for 51 years, and he had told me that he had never been treated as poorly as he was now. He’d been quarantined before, but this time he didn’t return. He was 67.

“Guys are falling out every day,” a prisoner said in an adjacent cell. “It started out with nobody and now the whole building is falling out.” I asked a corrections officer how he was handling the situation. “I’m drinking more,” he said with a forced laugh before walking off.

This all took place before N-95 masks were issued to prisoners in mid-July, so the virus continued to spread. The University of California San Francisco donated four-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer to the prison for individual inmate use, but there was no replacement once it was gone. We could get refills upon request, the prison’s press office said.

When food services finally collapsed because of the shortage of inmate and prison staff workers, we were served pre-packed lunches three times a day, consisting of crackers, pretzels, bread, cookies and cheese — no fruits or vegetables.

Tent City

Between June and July, I was tested three times. Before I received the result of my second test, Dr. Yao-Cohen came to my cell with a grim look on her face. She told me I tested positive for COVID-19. The next day I was moved to “Tent City” on the lower recreation yard to quarantine inside one of nine ten-man tents. In addition to the tents, the Prison Industry Authority, chapel, and gym were converted to field hospitals for quarantine.

A wall and gate were all that separated me from accessing prison grounds on the other side. This was the first time in more than two decades that I was able to walk outside and see the stars unescorted by a cop.

Because I’m serving a life sentence, my custody and classification status make me ineligible to live in a dorm setting, much less outside in an unsecured tent with other men serving life. To access my normal living quarters, I have to pass through an iron gate and a big steel door. Once inside, there is a steel lever that has to be unlocked and pulled to release a bar that prevents the cell doors from opening, and each cell door has a key lock, just like in the movies.

At Tent City, I lived in tent number six. Because it was summer, it felt like a mini-vacation away from the loud, filthy cell block. On the yard were portable showers, bathrooms in trailers that rivaled motels I’ve stayed in, and a couple of hand-washing stations with mirrors and electrical outlets for the men to groom themselves. Peterson CAT generators supplied power. 

Not everyone was happy about the situation. “They (CDCR/medical) say we’re sick and then they bring us down here in a tent with nine other people,” Jerome Fosselman, 64, said in an interview. “They don’t have any scientific evidence that we won’t get sicker.” Months later, another prisoner reflected that San Quentin could not have done any worse if it had done nothing at all.

Twice each day, before breakfast and dinner, nurses would come down to the yard to check our vital signs: temperature, blood oxygen level, blood pressure and heart rate. This went on for two weeks until we were “resolved.” Other than a dizzy headache I had in June, I never fell ill after I was tested. I was asymptomatic. 

The unsung heroes in Tent City were the prisoners. Their cooperation with each other was amicable, unlike Americans on the outside who refused to wear masks, social distance or stay at home. 

We helped each other at the height of the crisis. Beyond calling man down, something I did several times for my cellmate who was taken to an outside hospital, prisoners volunteered to help pass out meals, arrange for laundry distribution, clean the bathrooms and empty trash.  They even placed old books in boxes on the yard to create a makeshift library for each other. 

Men who’ve lost their freedom, been at their worst and seen the worst, showed their humanity. Looking back on it, I’m shocked at how we all got along down there. The prospect of death probably brought us together by some small measure.

After two weeks of living out of boxes and sleeping on a cot, I returned to West Block. By then, the worst appeared to be over. My vital signs checked out well. I was “resolved.”

The foolishness continued in the cell block, however. Summer dragged on, and so did the heat in the building. Fans were placed on the first tier to blow air and COVID-19 droplets around as some inmates refused to wear masks.

We eventually received N95 masks and the allowance of an extra quarterly care package from our loved ones. But that was simply the state’s way of shifting responsibility for its wards to family and friends. Those with resources on the outside had to turn to people who, chances are, were out of work due to the pandemic.

The numbers continued to rise as I wrote. By July 2020, the United States had recorded roughly 25 percent of the world’s COVID-19 infections and deaths from the disease. San Quentin accounted for 29 of the COVID-19-related deaths in the one-year period since the pandemic began; 28 prisoners and one correctional sergeant.

Many people in the United States call the past year a “difficult,” “stressful,” “strange,” “crazy,” “uncertain” or “unprecedented” time. I’ve heard it all. It’s what free people coined the “new normal,” after life changed as the coronavirus overwhelmed society. No one had answers, and everything, including death, was handled differently. Some said it was wrong, unfair and un-American.

Not for prisoners. In prison it’s just time, and lockdowns are a normal part of the incarceration routine. People who are locked up somehow manage to endure cabin fever, isolation, shelter-in-place, lockdowns and mental illness fueled by loneliness. Because we’re prisoners, our lives are not supposed to matter.

The best public demonstration of this point is how the state treated us at San Quentin when COVID-19 struck.

I’ve been at it for more than 400 days, writing since the pandemic began. I lived there, collected documents, wrote notes, and interviewed prisoners, public officials and private contractors. From my vantage point, the story of San Quentin’s COVID-19 disaster is far from complete.

Court Rulings

California’s Court of Appeals recognized prisoners at San Quentin were treated with “deliberate indifference” when it ruled on the Ivan Von Staich case in October 2020. The court ordered San Quentin to halve its inmate population. Some men were transferred to other prisons and the rest of us continued our existence inside 5-by-9-feet boxes, 22 to 24 hours a day.

The Northern District Court of California also viewed incarcerated people differently last year when it ruled in Scholl v. Mnuchin that prisoners were eligible to receive stimulus checks. Some prisoners sent money home to their struggling families.

Now in my 25th year of incarceration, I’ve seen fights, riots, melees, stabbings, suicides, overdoses, power outages and all kinds of diseases that have ended lives. Today I’m waiting for the next disaster or emergency that will disrupt the prison. I don’t expect the prison system has learned much about any of the previous crises.

All I can do is remain vigilant, do my program, stay safe and try to make it home. That’s the end game. 

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.

Kevin D. Sawyer is a contributing editor for PJP; a member of the Society of Professional Journalists; and a former associate editor and member of the San Quentin News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus and others. He was a 2019 PEN American Honorable Mention in nonfiction and a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for community journalism. Prior to incarceration, Sawyer worked in the telecommunications industry for 14 years.