Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by Mufid Majnun on Unsplash

San Quentin State Prison’s most recent outbreak in mid-August reaffirmed the incarcerated community’s mistrust and reluctance to submit to COVID-19 testing.

Inside the prison, a positive COVID-19 test result triggers more than just fear of potential sickness or death. It also guarantees an abrupt 21-day relocation to solitary confinement in the prison’s infamous Adjustment Center (the AC).

Frank Wilbert Jr. said his nightmare began at 2 a.m. on August 14 when two corrections officers (COs) showed up at his cell door. “Get up and get dressed. You’re going to the AC,” he recalled them saying.

Two and a half days earlier, Wilbert and his cellmate were tested for COVID-19 after their building — South Block’s Alpine unit — was placed under quarantine following another resident’s positive test result. Nurses had made rounds that same afternoon, going from cell to cell in Alpine and urging everyone in the unit to test.

Wilbert didn’t hesitate. “I jumped off my bunk when the nurses showed up,” he said.

Nursing staff continued visiting Alpine day after day to administer temperature and oxygen level checks, but they never gave Wilbert any indication of his positive test result until that rude awakening by the COs.

He said officers told him and his cellie they could each take one box worth of property with them. “It was such a sudden and rushed move,” said Wilbert. “I was barely awake, so I hardly took any personal belongings.”

Without knowing exactly how long he’d be gone, Wilbert grabbed just his towel, shower shoes, toothpaste, soap and his small radio powered by a hand crank.

Officers escorted the two men from Alpine to the AC where a doctor greeted them.

“The doctor told us we were there because I’d tested positive,” said Wilbert. “My cellie tested negative, but they still moved him to the AC as a precaution.”

According to Wilbert, no one showed him his actual test results until almost a week later. “The paper they showed me wasn’t in any standard form,” he said. “My name wasn’t even on it, and where it said ‘collection date’ — that spot was just blank. I thought that was weird.”

During his time in the AC, Wilbert said he was permitted to shower every other day, and prisoners had to be handcuffed on the short walk from their cell to the shower stall. Wilbert said the AC staff offered him time in the outdoor recreational yard only twice during the entire 21-day stay. His only activities were listening to local news and reflecting on his isolation.

“After two weeks, I started questioning the whole situation and wondering how long they were going to keep me there,” he said. “It really was cruel and unusual punishment.”

Wilbert rarely saw any other incarcerated peers, mainly as they walked past his cell to shower and vice versa. “I had no idea what solitary was like before this. It was my first time in the AC.”

Wilbert had tested positive during SQ’s massive outbreak in July 2020 and had spent 30 days in the various quarantine tents set up on the baseball field. After that, Wilbert got his vaccination shots as soon as possible.

“I would not have done that if I were on the streets. But because of the environment in here, I felt an obligation to this community,” he said, adding that he has been taking precautions such as washing his hands frequently, wearing a mask and avoiding crowds.

Now that he has experienced living in the AC, he said he would refuse to take the test next time. “Now I understand why guys are refusing to take the test,” said Wilbert. “They’re actually punishing us for contracting COVID and it’s out of our control. There should be another area to house us — not the AC.”

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.