“I don’t want to die in here” – Protests Rise Against Tiny Meal Portions, Suspicious Transfers, Lack of Testing

By Julietta Bisharyan and Jaskiran Soomal 


Incarcerated Narratives

On May 30, San Quentin (SQ) had zero COVID-19 cases. Now, it has reported over 2,200 total confirmed cases and 28 deaths. The initial outbreak began when CDCR officials transferred 121 men from California Institution for Men, a COVID-19 hotspot, to San Quentin, without prior testing. 

In November, a three-judge panel in the First District Court of Appeals ruled that San Quentin must reduce its population to no more than 1,775 people to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Justice J. Anthony Kline expressed that the facility’s outbreak has been the worst epidemiological disaster in California’s correctional history. 

Juan Moreno Haines is an award-winning journalist incarcerated at San Quentin. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and a regular contributor to Solitary Watch. He contracted COVID-19 in June and was moved to solitary confinement in the Badger unit. 

He interviewed two other SQ residents, Christopher Hickson and Walter McGee, who were also sent to the Badger unit after contracting the virus. 

Juan remembers going outside for the first time in months after being in solitary confinement, which was meant to be medical isolation or quarantine.

“My vision adjusted to the sunlight as I walked through the gate. It was since mid-May that I breathed fresh air and felt the sun on my skin. It was August 3.” 

He absorbed the beautiful views of the ocean and Mount Tamalpais surrounding the prison’s fences.

After testing positive for the virus on June 27, he was moved from North Block to the Badger unit. He reported that the cells very filthy and about 60 people were locked inside for 24 hours a day. They were only let out for showers every three days, were not given any electrical power and had no TVs. Only battery operated radios were provided, but Juan did not have any batteries. 

On June 29, several inmates began a hunger strike. Christopher Hickson was one of them. After nine days, he ended his strike after prison officials agreed to improve some of their living conditions. One of these changes included being placed in individual 4-ft by 10-ft cells rather than shared cells. Juan reported feeling better with this improvement. 

For Juan, being able to go outside into the yard gave him the opportunity to talk with others and share experiences with COVID-19. He spoke with 24-year old Walter McGee who said, “They got us in here like dogs.” Walter tested positive on June 28 and was also placed in the Badger unit. 

Walter says that CDCR is trying to correct their mistakes with handling the virus, but they are too late. For Walter, being able to take a deep breath of fresh air and feel the sun gave him the belief that God had answered his prayers. 

Walter explains, “A lot of us broke the law and may have been wrong, but I was lost and scared to change. But, since being in prison, I’ve learned how this affects my family…” 

Walter has participated in every program possible to help reduce his sentence. He even got his GED. He says, “I’d choose to stay out of prison by doing everything the legal way. But first, I have to worry about making it out of here alive.”

After talking with two of the 121 people transferred from Chino to San Quentin, Juan shared that the outbreak was bound by science to occur. He explains, “San Quentin’s architectural design is not compatible with human life because closed and unventilated buildings and dorm settings are deathtraps for inmates. The virus is proof of this.” 

CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes

As of Dec. 11, there are 27,057 cumulative confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 6,193 of them emerged in the last two weeks. Of the total cases, 25 percent are active in custody, 2 percent were released while active, and roughly 73 percent were resolved.

There have been 96 deaths across CDCR. 70 people are currently receiving medical care at outside health care facilities.

In the past week, three people died from complications related to COVID-19 at Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF), bringing the facility’s death toll to 6.

Additionally, three deaths were reported at Correctional Training Facility (CTF), Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (CVSP) and Centinela State Prison (CEN). 

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

According to CDCR officials, Sierra Conservation Center (SCC), which has reported 130 new cases in the last two weeks, has been working to increase the frequency of testing, conduct contact tracing and implement quarantine measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

CDCR says, “The Incident Command Post at SCC, which has been established since July, ensures immediate communication and coordination between custody and health care operations with public health experts and community stakeholders. SCC is conducting mass testing of the population, administering 2,137 COVID-19 tests to 100 percent of the incarcerated population in the last three days.”

To limit the movement of staff and population, SCC has stated that it would follow the mandatory 14-day statewide modified program, which includes staggered dining and recreation schedules to allow for physical distancing.

SCC also states that it is following isolation and quarantine protocols outlined in public health guidance and has established a dedicated isolation unit.

According to public health guidance, all staff are required to wear procedure masks while performing their duties and additional personal protective equipment (PPE), if required.

At SCC, a total of 96 staff members have tested positive, of which 84 have returned to work and 12 are active.

CDCR states that California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) has a sufficient supply of PPE readily available for all facilities. Additionally, according to CDCR, all staff are screened verbally and undergo a temperature check prior to entering institution grounds, and cloth facial barriers and cleaning supplies have been provided to the prison population.

In the past two weeks, Mule Creek State Prison (MCSP) has tested the most — 95 percent of the population. Salinas Valley State Prison (SVSP) has tested the least — 8 percent of the population.

During this two week period, Pleasant Valley State Prison (PVSP) reported 1,127 new confirmed cases, the highest count across CDCR. SATF reported close to 500 new cases, the second highest count.

There are 96,875 incarcerated persons in California’s prisons – a reduction of 25,534 since March 2020, when the prison outbreaks first began.

San Quentin

According to several incarcerated people at San Quentin, medical staff have been pressuring them to sign waiver forms accepting legal responsibility for their own deaths from COVID-19. 

There have been 28 COVID-19 related deaths at SQ thus far — the highest death toll across CDCR.

Between Dec. 2 – 4, many were taken to the medical unit, and reportedly pressured by nurses to accept an unsafe transfer to another California prison.

If they refused the transfer, the nurse would pressure them to sign a waiver form, which states, in part: “I agree to hold the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the staff of the medical department and the institution free of any responsibility for injury or complications that may result from my refusal [of the transfer].” 

In addition, the waiver form demands that the incarcerated person accepts liability for COVID-19 complications or even death, which results from being medically vulnerable and elderly.

Earlier, the First District Court of Appeals ruled that CDCR had violated the prison population’s Eighth Amendment rights and ordered SQ to reduce its population by 50 percent, which is the minimum number required to allow social distancing.

Effect on the Public

Protesters with loved ones in CDCR custody are rallying together outside multiple Central Valley prisons. This coordinated protest is set to convene on Sunday, Dec. 13 at 10am, and aims to rise against COVID-19 related human rights violations by CDCR. 

Protests are set to take place at the following facilities: Substance Abuse and Treatment Facility, Corcoran State Prison, Kern Valley State Prison, North Kern State Prison, Modified Community Correctional Facility – Delano, Pleasant Valley State Prison, Avenal State Prison and Wasco State Prison.

Families and friends will gather to hold memorials for incarcerated people who died from COVID-19 and highlight CDCR’s widespread negligence and abuse. Protestors also plan to deliver an evacuation plan written by advocates and families. 

Christine Herrera whose husband is currently recovering from COVID-19 at SATF shares that, “Our loved ones are in a life and death situation and CDCR continues to fail to respond in adequate and urgent measure.” She adds, “We want our loved ones safe; we want to bring them home.” 

Notably, these protests are not new. Over 50 protests outside CDCR facilities have taken place during the pandemic under the direction of We Are Their Voices, an organization with family members of those behind bars. 

According to the team, call-in-actions and phone zaps to facility administrators for immediate relief from inhumane conditions have yielded temporary and minimal results. Court-ordered releases and lawsuits have led to few changes, but are limited to specific facilities and not the entire CDCR system. Furthermore, participation in legislative hearings has not resulted in any system-wide changes.

Jamie Lien, who is currently incarcerated at SATF says, “I don’t want to die in here.” Lien is at a high-risk for contracting COVID-19 due to his age and diagnosis with terminal lung cancer. He says, “I’ve heard [CDCR] say they want this virus to run its course. They want us to get it. They don’t care who dies.” 

With kitchen workers in quarantine and kitchens being shut down due to outbreaks, Correctional Officers and prison staff have taken over cooking and serving meals at many facilities. As a result, many report that meal portions have become so tiny that it is bringing them close to starvation. They also report being placed in crowded gyms and cells without any heat or electricity. 

While protests taking place outside of prisons, incarcerated people are protesting within prisons as well. A group at SATF went on a hunger strike in November, demanding basic access to showers and clean laundry, testing, food, and transparency about suspicious transfers. 

Protestors also argue that transfers have resulted in many outbreaks across CDCR, as basic protocols and guidelines have been blindly ignored by prison staff. Families are in a state of anxiety, panic and anger because of the system-wide inaction. The lack of transparency, information and limited means of communication has made it difficult to stay in contact with loved ones who are behind bars. 

60 percent of the population in SATF are COVID-19 positive, further, there are no facilities free from COVID-19 in California.

Angela Cadena, an activist and organizer believes, “It’s up to us to be out here advocating for them because they [our loved ones] are being separated, shut down, ignored and retaliated against. We have to be their voices.” These flaws within multiple CDCR facilities need to be addressed and resolved in order to better protect the lives of inmates who are suffering during this drastic pandemic. 

CDCR Staff

There have been at least 7,973 cases of COVID-19 reported among prison staff. 10 staff members have died while 5,477 have returned to work. 2,496 are still active.

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 10 percent of total cases among incarcerated people and 5.6 percent of the total deaths in prison.

California also makes up 12 percent of total cases and 9 percent of total deaths among prison staff.

Division of Juvenile Justice

As of Dec. 11, there are 18 active cases of COVID-19 among youth at the Division of Juvenile Justice facilities. 97 cases 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 www.covidincustody.org for more information.

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