By Alexis Hogan
Casey* has been incarcerated at CDCR for nearly four years, and was recently transferred to the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in February 2020. Her transfer occurred just weeks before COVID-19 began to spread like wildfire across CDCR and other carceral facilities in the country.
Casey shared her experiences during the pandemic with the Vanguard, shedding light on the dehumanizing and dangerous conditions many women at CCWF, the largest female correctional institution in California, endured for months.
The first change Casey experienced after the news of the virus reached prison officials, was the halt on college classes and vocational training. “Programming had changed. Nobody was going to school or vocations. They received homework packets every Friday. The only people going to work are critical workers. Everything has been modified…” she said.
While CDC recommendations for masking were enforced by prison officials, Casey stated that many failed to comply. “It is almost impossible to social distance with so many people around,” she adds. Given that CCWF houses over 99 percent of its design capacity of nearly 2000 people, “social distancing” is an oxymoron.
In July 2020, Casey’s housing unit was quarantined when some residents who worked in the kitchen tested positive after being exposed to the “free world staff.” The news left everyone in a state of panic.
“They kept us in our room ALL day during quarantine… All our meals were served in our rooms. I had 7 roommates at that time… There was depression, confusion, fear, anxiety, stress, paranoia, and much more,” Casey stated, highlighting the mental health consequences of solitary-confinement style quarantine that has become rampant across CDCR during the pandemic.
In addition to the lack of social distancing, the sanitation protocols were poor. “[Staff] give us cleaning supplies but everything is heavily watered down… We are not given any of the pure stuff that will kill germs, bacteria, and viruses…” Casey stated. Additionally, there was little consistency in the availability of supplies. “We have to check them from the [Corrections Officers] with our ID cards at 8am and turn them in by 12pm. Can you imagine not having proper cleaning supplies during COVID, and then having to check them out at certain times and then give them back?”
After going under quarantine in July 2020, Casey’s housing unit was hit hard by COVID-19 again towards the end of 2020. “Almost every single day someone tested positive. I’ve had 5 roommates test positive for COVID-19 and the first one was on December 27. They left her in our room for 2 DAYS before moving her out to be quarantined…” she stated.
Since Casey’s housing unit was under quarantine, residents were only allowed to leave their rooms for testing. There was no access to phone calls for at least a week into quarantine and laundry was halted for two weeks. With soiled clothes piling up, Casey described a widespread, growing concern for their health and safety. “We were all upset because we wanted to have CLEAN clothes during this scary and deadly pandemic, but it wasn’t allowed.” She ultimately felt that incarcerated people were being penalized for contracting the virus. “We were treated cruelly and inhumanely. Punished for having a virus that was brought to us from the free world staff.”
During quarantine, Casey observed that many developed feelings of neglect, anxiousness and paranoia. “Everyday we were paranoid, on pins and needles listening to the COs keys, their footsteps walking down our halls, with trash bags in their hands, and pushing carts to inform us that we’re positive and should pack it up to be quarantined on A-yard. Every time we had to test, we would be filled with anxiety.”
The prison’s ‘A-yard’ was being used to quarantine those who tested positive, which Casey recalled had the worst conditions. “They were housed in units with NO electricity and NO hot water… They received NO treatment for COVID. They didn’t have laundry, phone calls, or mail…” She explained that the poor conditions resulted in “sit-outs and near riots because they were treated unfairly.”
Casey, who was a Pre-Med/Biology major in college, criticized the incompetent response to COVID-19 from the prison officials. “They have had nearly a year to prepare and plan for a possible outbreak, but they failed to do so, and failed to protect us. They have been making things up as they go, they are disorganized, inconsistent, confused, and stupid.”
Cross-contamination was a major consequence of the staff’s disorganization. When ‘A-Yard’ became overcrowded, another housing unit was used as a quarantine space; this prompted two individuals from the new quarantine unit to be moved into Casey’s room. “We were all PISSED. This is cross-contamination. We don’t know if they’re positive, and they don’t know if we’re positive…” she said. Shortly after the move, one of her roommates tested positive.
On January 13, an announcement was made that quarantine procedures were changed such that an entire room would be quarantined if one resident tested positive. The next day, Casey’s roommate tested positive, so Casey and her roommate were told to pack up their property and quarantine at ‘A-Yard’. Given that ‘A-Yard’ had the worst conditions, they felt “angry, devastated, fearful and in deep shock.”
Casey explained that the two-person cells in ‘A-Yard’ were small, freezing, and particularly filthy. Her new roommate was from a different housing unit, adding to the risk of cross-contamination. Everyone in quarantine was organized into groups of four to eleven people, Casey explained. “They only allowed us out of our rooms every other day to watch TV, make phone calls, do laundry, and take showers. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served to us in our rooms everyday. We still tested for COVID weekly. If anybody in our group tested positive, we would have to start the 14-day quarantine all over again.”
The isolation and anxiety Casey experienced in ‘A-yard’ was particularly traumatizing. “I hated being quarantined on A-Yard. I absolutely despised it… I was depressed, very irritated, frustrated, anxious, and I lost weight from a loss of appetite. For more than a month they have been giving us ridiculously small portions for our meals… Our rooms would have puddles of water on the floors and water coming through the walls from the rain outside. The entire experience was an awful nightmare,” she said.
Fortunately, no one in Casey’s group tested positive during their quarantine period, and her group was allowed to leave the ‘A-Yard’ on January 28. However, the trip back to her former room was not an easy task. She had to push a cart with all her personal belongings through heavy rain. “We were soaked. Our beds were soaked. Our bodies sore and aching from pushing those carts… but it did feel good to be back in our regular rooms.”
Casey described a continuous feeling of unpredictability and uncertainty among incarcerated people during the pandemic; the CCWF staff seemed to exacerbate the adverse conditions. She explained that many people lost their personal property due to staff negligence and ignorance. “When [COVID-19] first began to spread, we were told to pack for only 2 weeks… The rooms that did not have anyone in them, the COs took all the property that remained in there. People’s stuff either got stolen by other inmates or were thrown away.”
Casey highlighted numerous other instances of maltreatment by the staff members at CCWF. During quarantine, the COs “did not want to do any cleaning, and prevented those who volunteered to do so” she said. Further, requests for medical care have been ignored, a recurring issue reported at numerous CDCR facilities and county jails. “I’ve witnessed quite a few people complain about having symptoms, but they are ignored by the COs and medical staff for DAYS or a week or more,” she recalled.
Staff neglect and maltreatment seemed to engender suspicion and apprehension among incarcerated people. “They have consistently cross-contaminated us and try to limit our communication to our families and those who can help us, so how can we trust them?”
Casey explained that the CCWF medical and custody staff routinely disregarded incarcerated individuals’ requests for information regarding protocols or next steps. “The answer to every question we asked was, ‘I don’t know’.” This secretive nature contributed to the feelings of distrust and anxiety. “Many people have refused to test for COVID in here. They feel it’s a set-up and the tests are rigged. Their fears, thoughts, and opinions are understandable…I’ve heard COs say to us, ‘Eventually everyone’s going to catch COVID’, with that statement and everything that’s happened, I honestly believe that they are purposely trying to make sure we ALL catch this virus.”
A few days after Casey returned from ‘A-Yard’ to her housing unit, an announcement was made that quarantine would be extended to 21 days, instead of 14. This was required not only for those who test positive, but also those who refuse to test, and those who were exposed to someone who tests positive. However, Casey explained that this new procedure effectively increased the risk of cross-contamination due to overcrowding and disorganized implementation. Additionally, the constant displacement and relocation of incarcerated people caused severe mental and physical distress.
After another announcement was made stating that if there are any positive tests in a hall, the entire hall would be quarantined, Casey exclaimed, “there aren’t enough words to describe how livid and nervous we are. One person could put an entire hallway in quarantine. There is an average of 8 people per room, with 8 rooms per hall. That’s 64 people!!! And the housing unit for exposed inmates on A-yard has about 98 cells that could hold 2 people. There isn’t enough room to house multiple hallways who have been exposed to an inmate who tested positive”
The extremely close quarters and limited time out-of-cell time makes the situation even more grave. Casey describes a rising tension in many housing units. “Their rooms are full with 8 people each, they are living with people they’re not compatible with, we are constantly lied to or ignored… There’s a lot of bullying going on inmate to inmate… I’ve seen so much, I don’t even bother to look anymore when the alarm goes off.”
Many activists and organizers have pushed for early-releases to help alleviate the pressure of overcrowding in CDCR. However, Casey states that “even with all the new laws that qualify people, still hardly anyone is getting out early…”
In July 2020, Casey’s roommate submitted an emergency medical grievance due to her underlying health issues that made her vulnerable to developing complications associated with COVID-19. Her roommate waited many months for the decision, but when it finally arrived, her grievance was denied. CDCR claimed that they would provide masks and cleaning supplies to resolve the issue.
Casey emphasizes that the CCWF staff continuously disregard the human rights of those incarcerated. “We may be prisoners, but we are human FIRST… I often wonder how they would feel and what they would do in our shoes,” she says.
Casey has fortunately never tested positive for COVID-19, but she is fearful of another outbreak. “Starting on Monday, February 22, they are allowing certain people to return back to work… We believe it will be a mess because coming back to our housing unit, if one person tests positive, an entire hallway must quarantine in A-yard. We believe there will be another surge of COVID.”
* Name changed to protect identity