Three people hold a banner that says "save lives stop transfers" with San Quentin and the ocean in the background.
An interfaith vigil at San Quentin on July 19 2020, during their first outbreak. (Peg Hunter)

The incarcerated community at San Quentin State Prison (SQ) are angry, frustrated and confused about the prison administration’s actions following the most recent outbreak of COVID-19.

After fully vaccinated prisoners in South Block’s Alpine unit tested positive for the virus within days of each other earlier this month, the prison placed Facility A, where it houses most of the prison’s general population as well as Death Row, on lockdown. 

As the highly contagious delta variant sweeps the country, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has reported nearly 300 new cases in its facilities across California since the beginning of August, according to CDCR data: On August 14, CDCR’s online COVID tracking webpage reported that there had been 151 cases in the last 14 days; on August 31, 138 new cases had been reported in the last 14 days. 

Weekly cases recently have risen above 100 for the first time since mid-February. 

Yet, San Quentin officers and staff have been moving freely throughout the prison, working in multiple cell blocks while swapping and picking up shifts. 

In addition, the CDCR has continued to allow the transfer of prisoners into San Quentin. 

On August 14, immediately after San Quentin’s chief medical executive Alison Pachynski declared an outbreak, defined as three or more related cases of COVID-19, the prison issued an official Program Status Report (PSR) in which it stated at the very top that San Quentin was “closed to intake.” However, it issued an updated PSR that excluded that sentence just two days later. 

“This is a controlled environment, and they are the ones controlling it,” said Terry Mackey, a resident of the Alpine unit where the current outbreak occurred. “The only way the virus gets in here is through them.” 

Spokespeople for CDCR did not respond to a request for comment. 

While there has been no new positive test results in San Quentin since August 15, the residents are particularly sensitive to the prison’s handling of the latest situation because it experienced one of the worst outbreaks in the country after CDCR transferred 122 COVID-19-exposed prisoners from the California Institution for Men to San Quentin last May. More than 70 percent of prisoners—including Mackey—were infected, eroding trust in the prison’s mitigation policies and procedures. The now-infamous outbreak resulted in 29 deaths, and more than 300 San Quentin residents have sued the prison and the corrections department over their handling of that situation.

Leonard Brown, a San Quentin resident, said he witnessed approximately 20 new arrivals step off a green prison bus on August 18 and line up outside SQ’s Receiving and Release (R&R) area, the department that processes all prisoners entering or leaving the prison. Prison staff previously told prisoner representatives that only fully vaccinated people have been allowed to be transferred in from other prisons, but concerns have remained.

“It goes against everything they keep telling us they’re doing to try and reach a safe re-opening,” said Brown, adding that it felt like the prison didn’t care about their well-being. 

“This is a controlled environment, and they are the ones controlling it”

Incarcerated R&R workers also confirmed that busloads of incoming transferees came to San Quentin from other facilities on August 17 and 18 and were housed directly in the Adjustment Center (AC), which is also where prisoners who test positive for COVID-19 are being isolated. The AC consists of 97 single-person cells enclosed by solid metal doors.

The biggest issue for the residents is that no matter how careful they are, they are at risk for the coronavirus because prison staff and other outsiders can bring it in from the outside. 

Officers and staff were offered vaccine shots almost immediately after they were approved for emergency use, months before any incarcerated residents. Yet their vaccination rate stands at 60 percent, compared to the prisoners’ 85 percent, according to official reports. 

A positive COVID-19 result is not only a health concern, it brings severe consequences to prisoners even if the outcome is a false positive. Those who test positive must leave most of their belongings behind and are immediately isolated in a building traditionally used as the solitary confinement “hole” for Death Row for 10 to 14 days. 

“They go home every night and come back,” said Mackey, referring to the prison staff and officers. “We can’t go home but we’re the ones who keep getting tested, keep getting quarantined and put on lockdown.” 

Since the Alpine housing unit was placed on quarantine lockdown, nurses have been regularly walking through to offer temperature checks and COVID-19 testing.

Most prisoners, however, are leery, and many have consistently refused to take the test because of bad experiences in the past.

“I’m through with all of that,” said Charles Crowe, who is fully vaccinated and intends to get the booster shot, but has declined the tests and the temperature checks. “When I tested positive last year, they locked me in with a non-positive cellmate and refused to give me Tylenol because my temperature stayed normal.” 

So far, quarantine life in the Alpine unit is tolerable. Prisoners are permitted showers and three hours of recreational yard time daily. They also have access to phones that are wheeled to their cells. 

During the pandemic, the prison has also set up tables where people can help themselves to N95 and surgical masks. 

Still, San Quentin residents said they are waiting for the administration to implement a plan to alleviate overcrowded living conditions. San Quentin has reduced its population to 2,680 from 4,000 prisoners at the height of the 2020 outbreak, according to CDCR’s website, but the population density has not changed because there are more than 650 empty and unused cells throughout three South Block units. Prisoners in North Block and West Block also remain compacted. 

Raymond Torres said he remembers when he first arrived at San Quentin after being involuntarily transferred from the California Institution for Men last May. 

“When I got off the bus, I asked them ‘Why did you bring me here?’” said Torres. “Medical staff told me, ‘It’s for your health,’ but I don’t feel any safer or healthier than where I was before.”

This was originally published by the 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.