“A submarine that was sinking” – San Quentin Residents Reflect on COVID-19 Devastation


By Julietta Bisharyan, Nick Gardner and Jaskiran Soomal 


Incarcerated Narratives

San Quentin (SQ) has confirmed 2,238 positive cases and twenty-eight deaths thus far, making it the second most affected facility across CDCR.

With a population of a little over 2,800, SQ has been mandated to reduce its population by 50 percent per recommendations from public health officials. 

Steve has been incarcerated at San Quentin since 1983. The pandemic is unlike anything he has seen in his 37 years behind bars. During the first COVID-19 wave, he developed mild symptoms and tested positive. As a result, medical staff sent him to the “hole” (meant for those with disciplinary citations) for two whole months. 

Prison officials forgot he was there, and only moved him back to his cell when he repeatedly reminded them that he was past his 14-day quarantine.

When news spread regarding the transfer of 121 individuals from California Institution for Men, a COVID-19 hotspot, which triggered the outbreak at SQ, Steve recalled feeling, “angry and resigned to fate.” 

He compared San Quentin to a “submarine that was sinking.” He personally knew two of the twenty-eight people who died from the virus.

He expressed that, “the distrust of medical is overwhelming,” predicting that many would not feel comfortable to even take vaccines provided by medical staff because of the lack of trust. 

According to Steve, many people reject tests because if they test positive, they are immediately sent to the “hole” for quarantine, which is akin to solitary confinement.

He added that contracting COVID-19 has become a punishment for SQ residents.

Steve has observed that currently, medical staff only test those who did not previously have COVID-19. He stated, “[Medical] occasionally does temperature checks, however, inmates are hesitant to comply because if their temperature is higher than normal, they run the risk of being sent to the “hole” for quarantine.” 

Regarding sanitation and supplies, he stated, “cleaning supplies is a joke.” He added that there are no cleaning spray bottles or disinfectant wipes readily available, and guards/wardens are capitalizing on the lack of supplies by selling items like brooms on the black market.

CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes

As of Dec. 4, there have been 22,313 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 3,108 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 18 percent of the cases are active in custody while 2.2 percent were released while active. Roughly 79 percent of confirmed cases were resolved.

There have been 90 deaths across CDCR thus far. 39 people are currently receiving medical care at outside healthcare facilities.

In the past two weeks, Substance Abuse Treatment Facility reported three COVID-19 related deaths. 

Additionally, Correctional Training Facility, Chuckawalla Valley State Prison and California State Prison, Los Angeles each reported a COVID-19 related death. 

CDCR officials have withheld their identities, citing medical privacy issues.

In November, High Desert State Prison began to experience a second coronavirus outbreak. The facility has reported 363 new cases in the last two weeks. Over the past few days, active cases have finally begun to diminish.

Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, Pleasant Valley State Prison and Mule Creek State Prison have also reported a sharp increase in cases. The facilities report about 2,130 active cases collectively. 

In the past two weeks, Correctional Training Facility has tested the most — 85 percent of its population.

R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility has tested the least — just 8 percent of its population.

There are currently 97,350 residents in California’s prisons – a reduction of 25,059 since March, when the prison outbreaks first began.

On Nov. 25, CDCR announced all non-essential California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) enterprises will be suspended beginning Nov. 26 through Dec. 10. 

CALPIA will only be operating mission-critical enterprises, including food services, laundry, dental and the healthcare facilities maintenance enterprises. 

According to CDCR, these decisions were made in coordination with CDCR operations, CCHCS and health care experts.

Effective Nov. 26, CDCR will also suspend intake from county jails based on public health guidance. In addition, all institutions will be implementing a 14-day modified program, which limits movement of both staff and the incarcerated population. 

“While we recognize the suspension of intake has been challenging for county jails, it has been a necessary step. In recognition of those challenges, the Administration identified $31.2 million in state General Fund this year to reimburse county jails, with CDCR paying a per diem of $93.54 per inmate,” CDCR updated on their website.

Video visiting will continue at five specific institutions with COVID-19 precautions including physical distancing, mask use and cleaning between appointments.

San Quentin

The First District Court of Appeals is set to hear final arguments in a case that will determine the direction of COVID-19 safety policy at San Quentin.

Last week, attorneys representing roughly 300 San Quentin residents stated in court briefings that CDCR “has not yet taken any meaningful steps toward promptly reducing the population of San Quentin by 50 percent (or 1,097 prisoners),” defying a court mandate issued last month.

Since the order, San Quentin has only released 112 individuals, and as of this week the institution still houses 93 percent of its available capacity. As an aggregate, the California prison system is currently operating at 106 percent capacity despite calls by health experts to dramatically reduce occupancy.

“This is not nearly fast enough, particularly given the spike in COVID-19 cases in California and throughout the country,” said the legal team comprising public defenders from Marin County and San Francisco, as well as the San Francisco-based private firm Keker, Van Nest and Peters. “Simply put, CDCR has repeatedly proven that it cannot be trusted to protect the health of the prisoners in its charge.”

The attorneys’ comments come in response to CDCR’s apparent neglection of the court mandate that would limit San Quentin’s population to no more than 1,775. Concerns center around ambiguous solutions posed by CDCR, such as the development of “alternative housing” for at-risk residents as opposed to transfers or early releases.

“There is nothing to suggest that CDCR is making progress toward that goal,” the lawyers stated.

CDCR’s legal counsel, which includes California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, point to the 17,000 individuals who have already been granted early releases since March as proof of progressive steps taken by the Department. They continue to favor transfers to decarceration.

According to the lawyers, an assessment of all 300 individuals would be necessary before pursuing releases — a process that “is not a worthwhile effort” and an unreasonable request of the court. If individual reviews were to be sought, Becerra and his team argued that the prison system would be the appropriate auditor, and that factors such as mental health should be considered. 

Further, the Attorney General’s office argues that 66 percent of the 300 individuals seeking releases do not have underlying conditions and “therefore are not considered high-risk.” 

An evidentiary hearing set for next Monday that will determine the next steps in the case.

Effect on the Public

Health experts have been advocating for decarceration as a solution to the spread of coronavirus in California’s state prisons. Since reluctantly approving release efforts in March, CDCR has reduced its overall population using a defined set of criteria that includes remaining sentence time, health risk, and public safety. 

However, certain decisions have been met with substantial public criticism. Earlier this month, CDCR announced the release of Richard Anthony Sepelio, a former Naval petty officer who killed four people and injured several others in 2016 after crashing his truck into a group of festival-goers at Chicano Park in San Diego. 

Last week, it was determined that Arthur McKellar, a convicted sex trafficker originally set to serve 15 years in prison, would walk free. 

“I knew he would get an early release but I had no idea it would be this early,” said Kimberly Eggart, whose daughter still suffers trauma inflicted by McKellar. 

Eggart recalls discovering McKellar’s involvement with her daughter in 2014. 

“As soon as I opened up her Facebook, she was sitting right across from me. I opened her Facebook and read the messages, got in the car and drove straight to the police department,” Eggart told FOX40. “She was being sex trafficked. It was all right there in writing.”

By 2017, Yolo County authorities had compiled sufficient evidence to bring McKellar’s case to trial where a jury found him guilty on charges related to sex trafficking. 

However, the composition of McKellar’s lengthy 15 years sentence was greatly altered following the passing of Proposition 57 in 2016, which broadened credit opportunities for those convicted of non-violent crimes. McKellar’s three years of time-served credits coupled with a record of good behavior left just six months on his sentence, and thus qualified him for early release.

For Eggart, the most unsettling part of McKellar’s release is that her daughter’s abuser will recover from the ordeal before she does. 

“Over the last three years, she has completely disassociated. She doesn’t know who I was and she doesn’t know who she was,” Eggart said. “She would talk about herself in the third person. She would tell you that she died.” 

Nearly six years have passed since the incident, and according to Eggart, her daughter “isn’t close” to making a recovery. Regardless, sex trafficking is still considered a non-violent crime.

Eggert has since filed paperwork that would restrict McKellar from coming within 35 miles of her and her daughter.

CDCR Staff

At least 5,903 cumulative cases of COVID-19 among prison staff have been reported. 10 staff members have died while 4,473 have returned to work. 1,430 staff cases are still active.

In Avenal State Prison, Kings County, more than 3,300 incarcerated persons and staff have tested positive, and eight men have died from COVID-19. 

Ed Welker, who has only been incarcerated at Avenal since March, raised concerns with the movement of correctional officers between yard buildings. After programs and college classes involving interactions among incarcerated people from various yard buildings were halted to limit the virus’ spread, he was shocked to learn that COs can work their main shifts in one part of the prison and overtime in another area. 

This caused concern to Welker and others because if officers are working in a non-quarantine area and then work a shift in an area with positive cases, there is risk of spreading the virus to non-quarantine areas.

The union representing prison guards confirmed that working overtime shifts in different buildings falls under the contract with the state prison system. However, county public health officials and the CDC discourage this practice since it poses a risk for spreading COVID-19. 

A recent report from the state’s prison watchdog agency indicates that several prisons are not following basic safety guidelines to mitigate the spread of the virus. As observed by the California’s Office of the Inspector General, staff members failed to wear masks in two-thirds of the prisons visited and there was an absence social distancing. 

When Avenal reported its first COVID-19 case in May, Kings County Public Health Director Edward Hill issued six health officer orders to the warden. Few of them addressed symptoms screening and testing along with protocols for isolation and quarantine. One order required the prison to minimize employee movement and modify work assignments until the outbreak was under control. 

On June 5, in response to this particular order regarding no movement/reassignment to other yards/buildings or positions, CDCR sent a letter to Edward Hill stating that the county has no authority within “[CDCR] fences.” 

The letter came from CDCR General Counsel Jennifer Neill arguing that the State is not an entity under local health officers’ jurisdictions. 

CDCR and CCHCS claim to limit staff movement in line with labor organization agreements in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The limitations of staff movement and cross shifts have been emphasized in other prison facilities like San Quentin. CDCR’s refusal to cooperate with county public health officials has been frustrating for County Supervisor Craig Pederson especially since state officials have asked other businesses in Kings County to scale back operations due to the pandemic.

CDCR Comparisons – California and the US

According to the Marshall Project, California prisons rank third in the country for the highest number of confirmed cases, following Texas and Federal prisons. California makes up 9.3 percent of total cases among incarcerated people and 5.6 percent of the total deaths in prison.

California also makes up 10.6 percent of total cases and 9.5 percent of total deaths among prison staff.

Division of Juvenile Justice

As of Dec. 4, there are 20 active cases of COVID-19 among youth at the Division of Juvenile Justice facilities. 77 cases have been resolved.


About The Author

Aparna Komarla leads the Covid In-Custody project, which partners with the Davis Vanguard to bring reporting on the pandemic's impact on county jails and CDCR to the public eye. See www.covidincustody.org for more information.

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