Incarcerated Narratives Detail Harrowing Experiences during COVID-19; Gov. Newsom Signs Legislation Allowing Firefighters to Pursue Careers in Fire after Prison

By Julietta Bisharyan and Nick Gardner


Incarcerated Narratives

SAN QUENTIN, 9 July 2020 — For the past three days, Thanh Tran laid in a fetal position fighting off COVID-19. In Tran’s building alone, over 30 incarcerated individuals have been hospitalized. Each day, cries of “man down” precede the familiar ringing of San Quentin’s medical emergency alarm, sounding at least 5 times per day. 

For the past 2 weeks, Tran has not been allowed to use the pay phone. Meals given to him and other individuals have been reduced to a boxed lunch, served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Despite spending three days fighting off a deadly disease yielding excruciating headaches and vomiting, Tran still showers with the general population. These showers, allotted to individuals once every five days, take place in a building with no ventilation and only 18 shower heads to serve 40 to 50 people at a time, producing a “sauna-like effect.”

Tran was first tested for COVID-19 in late June, in what he described as “an effort to transfer [him] to another prison.” 

Prison officials had already made efforts to separate positive and negative cases, however Tran recalls being placed back into the same building following his test, with the same men who he would later contract the virus from. 

Also on that day, Tran showered with the same 40 to 50 people, many of whom were complaining about how sick they were. Those same people surrounded Tran as he stood in line for dinner that night. 

Two days later, Tran started to exhibit the symptoms of COVID-19. During this time, he was locked in his cell for 23 hours a day, sleeping head to toe with his cellmate.

However, as Tran laid sick and bedridden, he received the results of his COVID test— negative. 

This is what it looks like to test someone, then try to transfer them,” Tran said. 

Tran described his time fighting COVID-19 within San Quentin as “the sickest I’ve ever been in my life.” Multiple times Tran has asked nurses for medicine but with no success. 

“The most painful, but common response so far is, ‘Okay, I’ll be right back.’ But they never come back.”

Currently, those who demonstrate symptoms but lack a positive test are being forced into a cell with those confirmed to have COVID-19. In the Badger Section, men are confined in a four-by-nine foot cell with no electricity. The same applies for those in the medical tents.

“No human being deserves to be sick and placed in what would be considered inhumane and unconstitutional conditions—even if COVID-19 wasn’t there to compound the problem. I’m begging you to see how we suffer. I’m begging you to open your hearts to compassion and not politics. I’m begging you to hear us and please Gavin Newsom, save our lives. We are dying in here.” 

CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes

As of Sep. 11, there are a total of 11,806 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 777 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 12.3% of the cases are active in custody while 3% have been released while active. Roughly 84% of confirmed cases have been resolved.

There have been 59 deaths across the CDCR system thus far.

Cases at Folsom State Prison (FSP) continue to grow. This week, there have been 218 new cases reported there. FSP has also tested the most in the last two weeks –– 86% of its population. 

Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (CVSP) in Blythe has tested the least this week, only 2% of its population.

Avenal State Prison (ASP) has reported the most new cases within the last two weeks –– 358 cases.  ASP has also resolved 140 cases this week.

Valley State Prison (VSP) reported 66 new cases this week – the highest number of cases the facility has seen. All cases are active in custody.

Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) and Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) are the only two facilities without any confirmed cases.

Last Friday, CA Mens Colony (CMC) reported that 44 employees had tested positive.

“Any changes would simply be a result of public health and CDCR Office of Employee Health reconciling employee cases that have been cleared by SLO public health,” CMC public affairs officer Lt. John Hill said in an email.

The population of incarcerated persons has decreased by 19,870 since the beginning of the prison outbreaks in March. There are currently 100,680 individuals incarcerated in the CDCR facilities. 

CDCR Staff

There have been 2,908 staff cases in the CDCR facilities. 1,277 are currently active and 2,004 have returned to work.

There have been 373 new confirmed cases in the past week.

San Quentin

San Quentin (SQ) currently stands at its lowest active case amount since the beginning of the outbreak. A month ago, SQ reported 1,639 active cases. Now, there are only 10.

Dentists at the SQ clinic said that officials had repeatedly failed to address their concerns about the risks of spreading COVID-19 through dental exams and procedures. 

For months, the dentists, who are members of a public policy committee for the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, had been pushing for crucial workplace safety improvements before state regulators intervened and shut down key operations.

“I could not trust my job to keep me safe,” one of the dentists told KQED. “I was terrified of bringing it home.”

On Wednesday, regulators with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) had posted a red tag at the clinic, declaring certain parts off limits and certain procedures as “dangerous.” Regulators said the hazardous work conditions “contributed to the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the workplace.”

After the statewide shelter-in-place orders were placed, the California Dental Association issued guidelines recommending that dentists immediately suspend all non-essential, non-emergency procedures for the next 14 days.

Supervisor at San Quentin, however, ordered dentists to continue routine screenings of incarcerated persons transferring in from county jails. This task involves placing dozens of men together in holding cages and checking each person for broken jaw bones or signs of infection.

The dentists also said that incoming incarcerated persons were not being quarantined upon arrival for 14 days at that time.

“Just looking in their mouths is putting us at risk,” one dentist said. “We were just told, ‘Do your job.’ ”

Back on Mar. 23, all but one of the dentists employed at SQ refused to do the screenings. The following day, the head of dentistry at CDCR adopted a new policy to end non-urgent dental screenings.

Still, the dentists who had refused to do the screenings said they were “written up” for defying orders a month later –– which can lead to a cut in pay or termination.

Some dentists said they were also disciplined for questioning the prison’s COVID-19 safety guidelines, “You want to get a write up? Ask a question, especially one about safety.”

In an email, CDCR spokeswoman Dana Simas said prison officials will work closely with the Department of Industrial Relations (Cal/OSHA’s parent agency), “to fully explain all of the actions San Quentin’s Dental Program has taken during the COVID-19 pandemic and to directly address OSHA’s concerns.”

A few of the dentists said their repeated requests for better safety equipment protections, such as specialized masks called PAPRs and air scrubbers, were ignored or refused.

In August, a Cal/OSHA inspector arrived at the dental clinic and wrote in a report that the dental staff were being asked to perform “high-hazard” dental procedures that generated aerosols, or fine airborne particles, without the protection of specialized equipment, in locations that did not adequately limit the spread of airborne infections.

Cal/OSHA has issued an Order Prohibiting Use, which directs the clinic to stop all dental work that generates aerosols from a patient’s mouth until the prison can meet a list of safety conditions.

The family of an incarcerated person at San Quentin State Prison, who died from COVID-19,  filed a suit against the CDCR over his death. The civil rights law firm Haddad & Sherwin filed suit on behalf of the mother and three children of Ruiz.

Daniel Ruiz, 62, was approved for early release in April because of his non-violent crimes, but he died from the virus before he could return home. His family said they didn’t learn about his health issues until weeks after he had been admitted to the hospital and was on a ventilator. 

“Adding insult to injury, CDCR prohibited the hospital from even letting Daniel’s family know he was there and fighting for his life against this virus, until the very end,” attorney Julia Sherwin said in a press release about the suit. “Daniel suffered alone, while CDCR kept his Mom, kids, and siblings in the dark about his condition.”

Since the outbreak, 26 incarcerated persons have died from COVID-19 in SQ, making up 44% of the total CDCR deaths.

“The folks in our prisons are human beings. Many who died at San Quentin had done non-violent crimes and should have been coming back home to their families soon,” attorney Michael Haddad said. “It is tragic and unacceptable that some prison bureaucrats treated them as less than human.”

Effect of CDCR Outbreaks on the Public 

SACRAMENTO — California’s incarcerated firefighters are hard at work on the uncontained Creek Fire in Fresno and Madera counties, as well as multiple other fires spreading throughout the state.

These individuals, based out of the state’s 43 conservation camps, serve as “hand crews” and perform physically demanding tasks usually on the front lines of a wildfire, such as clearing out brush or constructing a fire line. 

Recent media coverage of California’s record wildfire season has focused on the work of these individuals, who receive as little as five dollars a day for their dangerous work. As a result, a cohort of critics have formed denouncing the practice as slave labor.

However, supporters of the CDCR’s conservation camps program argue that incarcerated firefighters are learning valuable life and job skills, and that many prefer serving the community outdoors as opposed to being confined in a cell.

According to the CDCR, there are currently four incarcerated crews fighting the 143,000 acre Creek Fire.The crews hail from Miramonte and Mountain Home conservation camps near Sequoia National Park, as well as Gabilan Conservation Camp on the Central Coast. 

As of Tuesday, there were 100 crews formed from 1,219 incarcerated firefighters deployed to fires across the state. Each crew typically is  made up of 17 incarcerated persons and one captain from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Over the past years, the number of individuals eligible to participate in the firefighter program has been steadily decreasing. 

Requirements for enrollment limits participation only to those with less serious felonies and a few years left on their sentence. One reason for this has been an effort by state officials to reduce the size of the prison population by referring low-level offenders to county jail and releasing certain individuals.

As a result, less individuals are qualified for the firefighter program. Last summer only 2,800 individuals were active– significantly less than the program’s 4,234 person capacity. That number has gotten even smaller as Governor Gavin Newsom continues efforts to reduce prison populations to promote improved social distancing conditions.

Many of these individuals that the state is looking to release have little time left on their sentence, which also happens to be a prerequisite for enrollment in the fire program.

So far, there are 831 less incarcerated firefighters compared to this time last year. Recognizing the shortage of these crucial hand crews, fire officials have requested help from out of state.

Many activists have voiced concern over the pay received by incarcerated firefighters— which in cases can fall short of five dollars per day. Additionally, due to felony restrictions on EMT certification, which is required for all career firefighters, many of these individuals are unable to build a career off of these skills.

Firefighters can easily earn six figures a year, and many believe that such an opportunity would likely reduce recidivism.

Recently, AB2417 was introduced by Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez of San Bernardino, which would increase the opportunity for incarcerated firefighters to have their records expunged. 

Gomez Reyes has acknowledged the cries of slave labor coming from activists, however that’s not how the incarcerated firefighter’s that she’s interacted with view the program. 

“In my conversations with inmate firefighters, at the bottom of their list is how much they’re paid,” she told The Sacramento Bee. “That’s of less concern to them than the skills they’re going to receive and the opportunities that they wish they could get because of those job skills.”

Gavin Newsom has put his signature to legislation lifting barriers preventing California’s incarcerated firefighters from pursuing careers in fire beyond prison.

Standing at the site of the North Complex Fire, Newsom gave the finishing touches to AB2147, which allows nonviolent offenders participating in the state’s incarcerated firefighter program to have their records expunged, providing formerly incarcerated individuals an avenue towards achieving the certification required to become a career firefighter.

Specifically, these individuals will now be able to obtain EMT certification, previously barred to those who convicted a felony in the last decade, were on parole, or who had two or more felony convictions on their record. 

“Signing AB 2147 into law is about giving second chances. To correct is to right a wrong; to rehabilitate is to restore,” said Assembly member Eloise Gomez Reyes (D-San Bernardino), who championed the bill, in a prepared statement. “Rehabilitation without strategies to ensure the formerly incarcerated have a career is a pathway to recidivism. We must get serious about providing pathways for those that show the determination to turn their lives around.”

Due to COVID-19 protocol reducing the population of CDCR institutions, conservation camps, which operate the incarcerated fire program, have seen a sharp reduction in both current and eligible participants. Many of the participants eligible for enrollment also meet the criteria for early release, which includes those incarcerated for non-violent convictions as well as those with less than 5 years remaining on their sentence.

The historic wildfire season, which Newsom attributes to climate change, has already claimed 15 lives and laid waste to hundreds of homes and more than 3 million acres of land. 

“If you don’t believe in science, I hope you believe in observed evidence,” Newsom said. “You walk around this community, you walk around Lake Oroville — you see a reality — a reality that has set in in this state in very indelible ways. That is, we are in the midst of a climate crisis. We are in the midst of a climate emergency.”

As of Friday, three of the state’s largest wildfires on record– No. 1 August Complex, No 3. SCU Lightning Complex and No. 4 LNU Lightning Complex– are still burning.

LEMORRE, CALIFORNIA — A hotel being used to quarantine recently released incarcerated individuals has experienced a massive uptick in crime reports, most of which are drug related.

Despite police records of 345 incidents at the unnamed hotel between April 1st and August 21st, the CDCR has refuted these claims. 

The hotel had been participating in the CDCR’s “Project Hope,” a program that utilizes empty hotel rooms to quarantine newly released individuals.

However, the CDCR claims that the first Project Hope participant from Lemoore arrived on the 4th of June.

Since that time, the CDCR contests that there have only been 9 participants occupying rooms, two of which were being supervised by the CDCR’s Division of Adult Parole Operations, with the other seven under watch by the Kings County Probation Department. 

“All those participants successfully completed their quarantine or isolation, without interruption,” said Luis Patino, a spokesman for CDCR.

Regardless, the hotel has since decided to withdraw from the program, and a valid credit card and ID are now necessary to rent a room.

However, CDCR has stuck by their claims. 

“There are no reports from the hotel management of problems with any of the Project Hope participants. Further, CDCR has checked with the hotel ownership and learned they do not participate in any other state programs to provide housing during COVID-19,” Patino told Fox26.

As of late, no Project Hope participants have taken up temporary residence in the hotel for three weeks.

CDCR Comparisons – California and the US

According to the Marshall Project, California prisons rank fourth in the country for the highest number of confirmed cases, following Texas, Florida and Federal prisons. California makes up 9.3% of total cases among incarcerated people and 5.8% of the total deaths in prison.

There have been at least 3,236 cases of coronavirus reported among prison staff. 9 staff members have died while 1,779 have recovered.

Division of Juvenile Justice

As of Sep. 11, there are no active cases of COVID-19 among youth at DJJ facilities, and 68 have been resolved.

About The Author

The Covid In-Custody Project partners with the Davis Vanguard to report on the pandemic's impact on California's county jails and state prisons. See for more information.

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