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Sign at San Quentin that reads "Lower Yard Closed"
Photo by Eddie Herena

On June 29, San Quentin State Prison (SQ) declared yet another official COVID-19 “outbreak phase,” its third of 2022.

The facility had been set to resume fully normal operations from its last outbreak of May/June, but a fresh cluster of positive COVID-19 test results in South Block’s Badger Unit triggered a new timetable of quarantine protocols.

“You guys are in a sucky situation,” SQ’s chief physician, Dr. Marianna Ashe, told members of the Inmate Advisory Council, a group of leaders from the incarcerated population who act as liaisons to the prison administration, on Jan. 13. That was four days after the prison began a state-mandated precautionary quarantine shutdown in response to the nationwide surge of omicron.

Since then, residents have barely experienced two months of somewhat normal educational and rehabilitative programming opportunities. This is despite the fact that no prisoner has become seriously ill from COVID-19, according to a prison medical official with firsthand knowledge of the situation. There have been no genuine hospitalizations related to COVID-19 since 2020, this person added.

A spokesperson for San Quentin State Prison did not respond to a request for comment.

“This place is a total lie,” said Jared Hansen, who chose to transfer to SQ one year ago. “I only got vaccinated so I could come here to better myself and program, but we’ve been locked down almost the whole damn time. They completely bamboozled me.”

Worse than any lack of programming, Hansen said he has suffered three consecutive cancellations of much-coveted family visits with his mother, wife and two teenage daughters.

The prison still expects its incarcerated workforce to report to their critical work assignments, barring a positive COVID-19 test.

Read Joe Garcia’s breaking story last year on San Quentin’s second COVID outbreak: San Quentin Declares Another Outbreak After Four Prisoners Test Positive for COVID-19

“They’ll let us clear a rapid test each day and leave our quarantined buildings to go to work for them,” Hansen said. “But they won’t let us do that to see our families.”

Hansen hasn’t had any in-person visits since before 2020, when he enjoyed monthly — and sometimes weekly — visits from his family.

Outbreak guidelines at SQ currently prevent each housing unit from interacting with other units. If one unit is specifically under quarantine due to three or more positive cases, those residents are further shut down and denied access even to video visits.

Like hundreds of other SQ residents, Hansen can only use the prison’s payphone system to speak with family members in 15-minute increments — sometimes twice in a day if he lucks out and gets an extra call.

“It’s so heartbreaking to think that this could be our new normal,” Hansen’s wife, Alisha, wrote in a recent message to her husband.

Busloads of new arrivals continue to arrive each week. The population inside SQ’s walls has grown from roughly 2,400 prisoners in April 2021 to over 3,200 in March 2022, according to the website of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

SQ fell victim to one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks of any prison in 2020. Since 2021, vaccinations have been required of all incoming transferees. The incarcerated community now holds a 94% inoculation rate, with SQ staff at 86%.

Incoming prisoners, however, are no longer kept quarantined in a separate staging unit when they arrive at SQ. The current procedure is to house new arrivals directly in regular units that are not under immediate quarantine, alongside already established residents.

“Any guy coming off the bus might bring in a new strain of COVID,” said Derek Carter, who has been incarcerated for over 42 years and has spent his last eight years at SQ. “I feel like my life is being threatened with every busload coming here.”

The latest wave of COVID-19 cases can be traced back to new arrivals, who are tested on the fifth and tenth day after they arrive. They are the only ones who are required to test.

“I’m angry because CDCR and San Quentin allowed this to happen, and now it’s coming around full circle again,” Carter said. “We’re stuck. We’re in a standstill waiting to die.”

Although there have been occasional surges in positive test results over the last year, no one has become drastically ill. According to a prison medical official, hospitalizations from COVID-19 at SQ have been virtually nonexistent, except for rare and precautionary cases of positive patients with severe underlying health conditions.

In that regard, the COVID-19 vaccines appear to have worked well. Additionally, SQ medical officials are prepared to treat cases by offering the full battery of antiviral and monoclonal treatments like Paxlovid and bebtelovimab.

Read Joe Garcia’s interview with San Quentin's chief physician: Q&A: San Quentin Chief Physician Discusses COVID Outbreak, Public Health

The population’s mental health, however, may be at an all-time low. Frustration, anxiety and anger have overwhelmed an incarcerated community that once was driven by hope and their immersion in a rehabilitative prison culture.

“There are so many obstacles against us in the prison now, it’s not even funny,” said Carter. “There’s no program. One building will go on quarantine, and then the next — and so on and so on, over and over.”

Residents have struggled with limited recreational yard access, limited educational and work opportunities, stagnated self-help programming and excessive amounts of time isolated inside a 4-by-8-foot cell shared with another person.

For new arrivals and longtime SQ residents alike, the conditions have felt stifling and more punitive than rehabilitative.

“The whole point of us all getting vaccinated was so that it would be safe for us to program together here,” said Hansen. “Something’s got to change, and soon.”

(Additional reporting by PJP)

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.