The eastern gate to San Quentin State Prison.
The eastern entrance to San Quentin State Prison. (Jonathan Chiu)

On Monday, December 14, the same day that Americans first began receiving COVID-19 vaccinations, dozens of San Quentin (SQ) prisoners lumbered onto buses, their ankles and wrists in shackles, as they were involuntarily relocated to other state prisons. Frustration and anxiety continued to simmer within SQ’s COVID-impacted community, as prison officials attempt to solve dangerous overcrowding in hindsight. Alongside fears of infection and death, prisoners now brace themselves for quick displacement. Questions swirl and remain unchecked.

“When they forced me to leave Chino and come here, they told us we’d be able to decide where we wanted to go next,” said Mike, a 71-year-old man who had been among the 125 people hastily shipped to San Quentin from the California Institute for Men (CIM) last May. “That was just another one of their lies.” 

That group of emergency transfers from CIM to SQ was originally intended to prevent those prisoners from succumbing to COVID-19, but instead it brought the coronavirus to San Quentin and triggered the still-ongoing massive outbreak. 

Mike has remained COVID-free while living in both institutions, but as someone who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), he’s deathly afraid of becoming infected. He’s glad to be in a single cell. 

“I don’t leave the cell unless I have to—only to shower, and only when it’s not crowded,” he said, adding that he doesn’t even go to the Yard. 

Mike said he had been told that California State Prison-Corcoran was safer because the cell doors were solid metal. At San Quentin, cells had open bars. “I wish they’d just leave me alone and quit moving me around,” he said. 

“Transferring us around isn’t going to fix the problem”

Mike did not participate in any of the habeas corpus lawsuits filed by San Quentin prisoners against the unsafe COVID-19 living conditions, but his forced transfer stems from it just the same. The state court recently ordered SQ to reduce its population from roughly 3,000 prisoners down to 1,775. 

Over the last several months, SQ has gradually been rehousing its prisoners to accommodate only one person per cell—a stark contrast to the decades of overcrowding and double occupancy. 

Most of the December 14 batch of prisoners being shipped out of San Quentin had never tested positive for COVID-19 and have underlying health conditions which the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) classified as “high-risk medical.”

CDCR had mandated that “high-risk medical” prisoners be moved out, and hundreds more transfers were set to take place. Many San Quentin residents were told they’d be next. Some had already been separated from their personal property and held in quarantine in preparation for another round of bus rides. 

“Last year, they told me SQ was the best place to get treatment for my HIV,” said Victor S., a 39-year-old first-time offender who had never tested positive for COVID-19. “Now my counselor says I’m too high-risk to stay.” 

Victor said the prison had given him the option to refuse a transfer at first, but they changed their mind a few days later. 

On December 16, however, these transfers were abruptly canceled. Prisoners who relinquished their packed property had it returned to them, and counselors told everyone all transfers were off. Travis Vales, a 28-year-old plaintiff in the Marin County class action lawsuit against San Quentin, petitioned the courts for one specific type of habeas corpus relief—consideration for early release from the remaining five years of his sentence rather than be transferred to a different prison. 

“Transferring us around isn’t going to fix the problem,” he said. “We can’t create the virus from inside. Officers and outside staff bring it into the facility, and then they tell us to wear masks for our protection. Nothing’s changed.” 

On December 23, the California Supreme Court vacated the decision to reduce SQ’s population to 1,775 and tossed the matter back into the hands of the Appellate Court. 

As 2020 ends and the New Year begins, positive COVID-19 test results continue popping up inside San Quentin, as quarantine orders rotate around through various units. 

The prison community remains fearful, angry, and grossly uncertain of what will happen next.

This story was originally published in Prison Journalism Project. 

Joe Garcia is the chairperson of the Journalism Guild at San Quentin News, the nation’s only prison newspaper run by the incarcerated. He is also an editorial liaison for the Prison Journalism Project and has been published in The Sacramento Bee.