Horrific Stories of Neglect Heard in Hearing About San Quentin Prison COVID-19 Practices

By Jose Medina

MARIN, CA – Six incarcerated folks and a medical doctor from San Quentin State Prison gave their testimonies Thursday at an evidentiary hearing in the case against the state prison and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) during the COVID-19 crisis.

And the testimony was damning.

Judge Geoffrey Howard presided over the hearing in San Marin County Superior Court where he heard of the unsanitary environment, the mishandled transfer of COVID-19 infected people from California Institute for Men (CIM) to San Quentin that resulted in an outbreak, poor working conditions, and mental health deteriorations of incarcerated people.

John Mattox was one of those transfers from CIM, and is currently incarcerated in San Quentin. He revealed that before he was transferred, he knew people that were infected with the virus, noting that they were coughing and sneezing.

One of those infected was Mattox’s friend. He recalled having to help his friend, who had high temperatures, get from his cell to medical. He recalled that he was helping his friend from May 19 to May 23 of last year.

Mattox stated his friend “didn’t want to get out of bed, he didn’t want to eat. I brought it to the guard’s attention but they ignored it and just gave him a temperature check,” adding “they didn’t do anything, they didn’t isolate him.”

Some time passed and Mattox’s friend was finally sent into isolation. However, he revealed that “I had to pack and carry all of his property for him” and added that “the guards knew my friend had COVID so they avoided him because they didn’t want to be put in harm’s way.”

A week after he sent his friend off, Mattox began to feel sick and kept notifying the guards and medical staff about his symptoms. They ignored Mattox and notified him that he would be transferred soon.

He once again told medical staff about his symptoms but the guards scoffed at him and stated, “he’s lying, he’s trying to avoid transfer, he can tell someone at San Quentin.”

Mattox recalled that before the transfer, he and 23 others were put in a “small holding tank with no ventilation, we were cramped in there like sardines, there was no movement…it was hot and we were there for three to five hours before transfer; people would take their masks off from irritation.”

Aside from them being cramped in a small space, Mattox observed some of the transfers coughing and lying on the floor because they were not feeling well.

After being exposed to unsafe conditions for a few hours, Mattox and the other 23 transfers were escorted to their buses that would take them on an 11 hour ride to San Quentin.

He stated, “they shackled us up, gave us a cloth mask, and put in a bus, two people per four foot bench and eight rows of people with no social distancing, we were packed in with no ventilation.”

Upon arrival at San Quentin, Mattox recalled being uncuffed and put in a cell with three to four other people.

Two days after Mattox arrived he was finally tested for COVID, but was informed four to five days after taking the tests

After he had been tested he was put in an isolation cell. He described the unsanitary conditions of the cell and informed the court of the carelessness of the officers in maintaining cleanliness

He recalled that the cell was “filthy and an officer took water with bleach and doused the walls and mattress and left without giving me a towel to wipe up.”

Mattox’s testimony shed a light on the gross mishandling of the CIM transfers to San Quentin, which put the lives of many incarcerated folks in danger. Medical doctors at San Quentin were concerned that the transfers would put their patients in danger.

Dr. John Grant is a medical doctor who has worked at San Quentin for over 15 years. During his testimony he revealed that the medical staff were given a two-day notice that the CDCR would transfer incarcerated people from CIM to San Quentin prison.

According to Dr. Grant’s testimony, he shared his concerns and made it clear that he thought it was a bad idea to transfer people from CIM to San Quentin on such short notice in the middle of a pandemic. His concerns were ignored and was told that the decision had already been made.

With little time to prepare, Dr. Grant recalled that some transfers were not tested before their departure and that some transfers were experiencing symptoms upon their arrival.

Dr. Grant ended his testimony by making it clear that “the transfer had put all his patients in San Quentin in danger.”

Medical doctors were not the only workers at the prison that were concerned about the safety of the incarcerated people in San Quentin. Incarcerated people with jobs in San Quentin were subjugated to inadequate working conditions amidst the outbreak.

The next witness was Larry Williams, a building porter at San Quentin prison tasked with handing out food to cells, handling food trays, and cleaning. He indicated that the initial training for COVID-19 training was rushed, only 35 minutes long.

It was not until July that Williams and other porters received the full healthcare facility maintenance training, weeks after the CIM transfers that led to the COVID outbreak.

But, despite the training, Williams said they could not fully implement it because they never received the proper cleaning equipment promised.

When asked about the Alpine center’s conditions in June 2020, Williams stated “we tried to do the best we could with the old cleaning supplies we had to clean the cells…some people’s cells were clean and some people’s cells were not.”

Williams also mentioned that the shower areas were very “deplorable, we tried to clean them in between use but it didn’t happen.”

When asked if he was provided any masks at the beginning of the pandemic, Williams stated “at first they told us masks were not needed, despite us seeing staff walking around with masks…“it wasn’t until we complained that they gave us cloth masks at the end of April and finally N95 masks in July.”

On June 10, 2020, Williams was approached by an officer and asked if he would like to help carry some boxes from the lieutenant’s office. Once he started handling the boxes he noticed that they belonged to some CIM transfers.

Feeling as though he was taken advantage of, Williams then immediately thought “well then you are possibly infecting us with COVID given the fact that these incarcerated folks are possibly infected with the virus.”

Later that day Williams stated that “my skin felt flushed, I felt warm, and I got on the phone immediately to tell my wife I might be infected with COVID.” The following day he was tested for COVID and had also worked passing out food to approximately 300 incarcerated people.

It was not until June 15 that he was given his results, he had tested positive and every day from June 11 when he was tested up until June 15 he had been tasked with passing out food putting at risk the 300 incarcerated individuals that he served.

Williams was then moved to the Adjustment Center at San Quentin prison. On his first day he noticed that the “cell was soaked in some type of chemical, I assume it was cell block 64 disinfectant…“the mattress was soaked, the walls were soaked and I had to take my own personal shirts and things to dry off the bed so I can lie down that first night.”

He then described the unsanitary showers at the Adjustment Center recalling that there was “hair on the wall from when people shaved and it was a very unkempt situation.”

Williams said prison staff were negligent to the needs of incarcerated people stating, “the whole time I was at the Adjustment Center, not once did they offer to give us clean clothes, you ask for them we never received clean linen.” He said, “I had to wash my sheets and clothes in the sink.”

At the Adjustment Center, Williams’s mental health deteriorated. He recalled having sleepless nights explaining, “I was afraid to go to sleep, I was afraid that if I went to sleep I wouldn’t wake up because I had succumbed to COVID.”

He added “I had a neighbor who passed away, and I kept hearing the numbers of infected San Quentin going up so that affected my sleep.”

A second porter worker, Travis Vales, gave his testimony on his experience in San Quentin. He told the court that his duties included feeding incarcerated folks and maintaining cleanliness in May 2020.

When asked about the structure of the Badger facility, he recalled that there is one communal area with eight shower heads and that 30 to 60 incarcerated people would use the shower at a time. Vales noted that there was no social distancing and that people were coughing and some were not wearing masks while using the shower.

He recalled that people were getting ill in the Badger facility and calling out “man down,” a term used by incarcerated people to notify staff to get medical help. From June 1 to June 19 he would hear “man down” periodically every day.

He was tested negative for the virus on June 12, and moved to the Donner facility on June 19. When he arrived at the new cell he found that there was “trash and old discarded linen laundry from the previous tenant.” About five days later, Vales started to fall ill.

He told the custody staff of his symptoms but they went largely ignored and was once again moved into another cell, that was already occupied, in early July. A few days later Vales’ new cellmate started to feel the same symptoms he felt, indicating that the virus had spread to him.

Mark Stanley, an Inmate Disabilities Assist Program worker, testified his duties included helping incarcerated people with disabilities to perform everyday activities, including carrying their belongings in the event of being moved into isolation.

Stanley told the court that on June 23 of last year, he assisted four incarcerated people that were being moved to isolation in the Badger facility of San Quentin prison.

After seeing the first patient’s cell with a note detailing the necessity to use PPE when around him, Stanley immediately went up to an officer to ask for adequate PPE since he only had gloves he wore from an earlier job and a cloth mask.

He recalled that the officer just blankly told him “you don’t need the PPE, go back there and do your job.” He then asked a sergeant for the proper PPE, but the sergeant instead told him that they had no PPE to give him.

Without appropriate PPE, Stanley then assisted each of the four incarcerated persons, one by one. He recalled that they all looked ill, fatigued, and distressed. To make matters worse, he stated that they had cellmates that were most likely exposed to the infection because of a lack of social distancing in cells.

He remembered that when he assisted each individual, they would lean closely to him as they walked down stairs, making it impossible to be six feet apart.

Once Stanley gathered all four of the incarcerated folks and their belongings, an officer arrived to escort them to the Badger facility for isolation.

He noted that the officer had a face shield, an N95 mask, a plastic gown, and shoe covers. The officer even maintained six feet from the four incarcerated people as Stanley pushed the cart with their belongings.

After observing the stark contrast between his cloth mask and the officer’s full PPE ensemble they all made their way to the facility. Stanley recalled them taking multiple breaks since the four individuals would be out of breath.

Stanley then described the abysmal conditions of the cells at the facility, which he said smelled rancid and that there was “trash on the floor, two of the cells had no mattress, feces in the toilet, and the walls looked like they’ve never been cleaned.”

Stanley stated that he tried to do the best he could to kick the trash away and set down the belongings of every respective individual, but he remembered that he would be rushed by the officer every single time.

The following day, Stanley started to have symptoms related to COVID and was administered a test.

Despite showing symptoms the prison directed him to work from the day he helped the four individuals on June 23 all the way to June 28, which was the day he was put under the COVID monitoring list. Stanley noted that he was never told if he tested positive but that he was put on the monitoring list a few days after being tested.

He noted that within those five days he came into contact with vulnerable people through his job, including an incarcerated individual going through dialysis procedures.

Stanley said that after he was notified of being on the monitoring list, the officer locked him up in his cell alongside his cellmate who had tested negative. He was upset and started yelling at the officers “why are locking up someone who’s tested positive with someone who’s tested negative?” and added “I have my proof right here.”

Stanley described to the court the layout of his cell by saying the “toilet is almost right up to the bunk, the sink is about two steps from the bunk, you don’t have much space to maneuver.”

He added “only one person can be on the floor of the cell at any given time and that is still close, your cellmate is within six feet of you, he’s four feet within you if you are on the top bunk and the other person stands up and he’s right up on your face.”

The following witness, Michael Williams, stated that on June 3, 2020 he had a new cellmate move in with symptoms of lower back pain and numbness of legs. Williams recalled that he had to call “man down” for him. Despite being with a cellmate that had symptoms Williams was then given another cellmate.

A couple of days later, Williams experienced symptoms of shortness of breath and headaches. He was not tested for COVID until June 23, 2020. His positive results came in on June 27 and was moved to isolation the following day.

According to Williams’s testimony, he spent 39 days in an isolation unit, during those days medical staff would “sometimes ignore me and come every now and then but not regularly to check up on me.”

The final witness of the day was Juan Haines, currently incarcerated at San Quentin and is a senior editor for San Quentin News. As a journalist his goal is to “give the outside world an inside look at what and who are the people incarcerated in San Quentin State prison.”

Haines talked about his journalistic experience stating, “I’ve been covering infectious diseases at San Quentin for about a decade and particularly with the flu virus.”

He recalled that when the COVID pandemic was in its early stages, he predicted that “it was inevitable that the virus was going to get into San Quentin and it was going to rapidly spread like other infectious diseases like the flu and the norovirus.”

Haines elaborated that he came to this prediction by evaluating the North Block facility where his cell was located.

He testified that “the building is unventilated (with) 414 cells about 18 inches apart and there are two people assigned to each cell. At no time has North Block been under 135 percent of design capacity.”

When asked to describe how dirty that area of North Block was he stated that “there’s dust, there’s trash, there’s mice, there’s pigeons, and it looks like squalor.”

Aside from the facility being unsanitary, Haines revealed that the facility is poorly ventilated and areas like the showers make it impossible to properly social distance, noting, “In the showers prior to COVID we were shoulder to shoulder, during COVID we were three feet apart and right now we’re back to shoulder to shoulder.”

Haines recalled that he was tested for COVID on June 23, 2020 but that he would not receive his results until June 27. When he tested positive he was moved to the Badger facility in the prison.

When Haines arrived at his cell in Badger, he recalled that there was somebody else staying there who was recovering from COVID. He remembered that his new cellmate “was so weak that he didn’t attempt to unpack his property or clean his cell, so the cell had dust, grime, stuff all over the wall, graffiti.”

He added that “there was no power in the cell so we couldn’t even heat up water for soup or coffee or anything so it was the worst experience I ever had.”

Haines told the court that while he was at the Badger facility he was not given any medical care and that he “was practically being left to die by San Quentin prison.”

After detailing the poor conditions in San Quentin, Haines was cross examined by Deputy Attorney General John Walters, who was representing the prison and the CDCR.

Walters inquired about whether or not San Quentin prison has improved conditions since the COVID outbreak – Haines answered, “I don’t understand what you mean by improve, because from my perspective, I’m drowning and you let me up two feet and I’m still drowning because we’re overcrowded in the prison.”

The evidentiary hearing will reconvene to hear more testimonies.

Jose graduated from UC Davis with a BA in Political Science and has interned for the California State Legislature. He is from Rocklin, CA.


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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