This story is part of the Inside/Out Journalism Project by Type Investigations.
After more than a year of ongoing COVID-19 lockdowns at San Quentin State Prison, where I am incarcerated, I longed to get back to normal. In April 2021, I took the Moderna vaccine. In May of that year, I moderated a COVID-19 vaccine information session to convince others to take the vaccine. Epidemiologist Kim Rhoads and Dr. Peter Chin-Hong came to San Quentin, sat at a table on the lawn, and answered questions about the vaccine.
“For every person who takes the vaccine, we’re one step closer to getting out of this pandemic,” Rhoads said.
Almost everyone in the prison listened. Ninety-four percent of our population got vaccinated against COVID-19, far more than the share of people who got the shot outside of prison. The virus that once triggered an outbreak that sickened more than 2,200 incarcerated people and killed 28 people in our San Quentin community is now relatively manageable in most cases. We took the vaccine because we were told it would get us back to normal. But we have not returned to normal, three years after the pandemic began.
Standing in the way of “normal” are hypervigilant protocols that kept San Quentin on rolling lockdowns for most of 2022. These protocols require lockdowns—canceling visits and greatly limiting activities, work and general movement—if a unit has three or more linked cases of COVID-19 among incarcerated people over 14 days. The unit can only resume activities once it has no new cases for 14 days.
“Normal,” before the pandemic, meant visits with our loved ones. “Normal” meant being allowed to work in the media center where Ear Hustle, San Quentin News, and films are produced. “Normal” meant access to programs that help better us and prepare us for parole.
During lockdowns at the height of the pandemic, most of us were confined in roughly 4 by 10-foot cells for nearly 24 hours a day, usually sharing it with a cellie. While lockdowns now typically allow for a bit more time outside cells, we are still locked down for most of the day. Until a few months ago, visits, as well as most work and programming, were canceled. The prison changed its COVID-19 policies in September to allow limited visits and participation in programming if residents test negative and mask. But even after the guidelines changed, life has not returned to normal for most of us.
The last couple of years of restrictions has been destabilizing. Most incarcerated employees—who make 35 cents to a dollar per hour, depending on the job—have lost weeks or months of pay. For months, we were cut off from activities like creative writing, transformative mediation, and self-help groups. Even between lockdowns, visits from family and loved ones were limited to a small number of appointments for most of 2022. I only had three in-person visits last year because of lockdown cancellations and lack of available appointments. My education was also affected. I was one history course credit away from getting my associate’s degree in January 2020, but couldn’t graduate until June of last year.
And lockdowns have become routine. The first lockdown of 2022 was in January. While restrictions were initially scheduled for 15 days, they were extended whenever another person in the unit tested positive. Ultimately this spanned two months. Another lockdown starting in May lasted on and off until August, shutting out visitors and pausing programs again and again. The longest we went in 2022 without a lockdown in any part of the prison was two months.
I could understand if the lockdowns prevented San Quentin from repeating “the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history,” as the state appeals court called the 2020 outbreak in a landmark ruling. But they are making the same mistakes. Buses have continued to deliver new arrivals from other prisons. Most recently, I’ve spoken with people coming to San Quentin from Susanville Correctional Center, which is set to close this year. While people are now tested before they are transferred, they are not isolated when they get here unless they show symptoms. They’re only tested again five days later.
Transfers like these were at the root of the 2020 outbreak. The inspector general of California found that prison officials were responsible for the San Quentin outbreak by disregarding safety protocols, transferring people to San Quentin from a facility experiencing a COVID-19 flare-up, without up-to-date testing. The state appeals court ordered San Quentin to reduce its population by half.
The state supreme court, however, sent the case back to the lower court for reconsideration. Marin County Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Howard then concluded that while CDCR’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, the prison did not need to make any changes, because vaccines and new procedures were sufficient to safeguard the population. While the headcount at San Quentin dropped to around 2,600 by the start of 2021, it has since risen to over 3,500 people.
Meanwhile, prison staff are coming and going into an outside world that has largely abandoned masks and vaccine checks. The CDC only recommends five days of isolation for infected people, while San Quentin requires whole units to have no new cases for 14 days in order to resume normal programming. The new guidelines have also relaxed weekly testing requirements for unvaccinated and partially vaccinated prison staffers, making it even more likely that the virus will spread from outside. San Quentin staffers don’t have to test before they come to work, but we are regularly tested inside. I know many people in San Quentin who now avoid testing, even if they feel sick, out of fear that it will trigger yet another mass lockdown and get them sent to the notorious Adjustment Center (the “hole,” as we call it inside). The people with the least power are being held the most accountable. Instead of testing staff to keep the virus out, they let staff come in untested and then test us and lock us down for getting sick.
Though case counts are relatively low, there’s always the threat that a new variant could trigger another surge. If a more severe variant emerges, the lockdowns will not protect us. And we’re still bursting at the seams. The prison is currently operating at 111 percent of its capacity. But I’ve noticed some units seem even more packed. Where I am, there are lines everywhere for everything. There are arguments over the phones because there are only a few available for hundreds of people. Where I am, we’re overcrowded and set up for disaster. Researchers have found that the risk of COVID-19 infection is heightened when you’re stuck in a confined, overcrowded space.
We need a program that reflects where we are now and the danger we will likely face in the future. So far, the vaccines continue to effectively protect most people from severe COVID-19 infections. The people who are most vulnerable are the elderly and the immunocompromised. If these vulnerable people were released, it would safeguard their health and ease the pressure on the prison.
But as long as prison officials overreact and overpack San Quentin, rolling lockdowns will continue to be our new normal.