By Kevin Sawyer
Kevin D. Sawyer is the associate editor for San Quentin News and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) whose work has appeared in the Guardian, San Francisco Chronicle and numerous other publications.
An informal sample survey of 100 men from all races inside San Quentin State Prison’s West Block revealed that more than 20 percent of prisoners who live there say they will not take a COVID-19 vaccination, or are undecided.
The survey revealed that 18 inmates will not take the vaccine and 4 were undecided. The remaining 78 of some of the prison’s most vulnerable inmates have already received one or more COVID-19 vaccinations, which began in January.
Months after coronavirus ravaged the state’s oldest prison, killing 28 prisoners and one correctional sergeant, many prisoners say they lack confidence and trust in the prison administration and its medical system.
“I don’t trust the system or the science,” said Kevin Sample, a 55-year-old African American who has been incarcerated for 24 years. “I need to trust both of them.” He said he had no immediate plan to get vaccinated.
Sample described “the system” as the prison administration and its medical department, public schools that told him he could be “nothing more than a janitor,” and politicians that systematically excluded him from decisions made in his community of Los Angeles. Mistrust of “the science,” he said, comes from the inadequate healthcare services in his underserved neighborhood where he grew up. He shares a 4’x9’ cell with another inmate.
In Social Identities: Journal For the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, author Krystal Batelaan explained that Blacks “are more likely to not trust healthcare providers and endure racist encounters in the healthcare system. Underlying health issues and lack of access to treatment explain, in part, why so many coronavirus victims are African American.”
In late February, CBS Sunday Morning broadcast the program “A Matter of Trust,” that focused on why a large number of minority communities do not have confidence in the U.S. healthcare system. The program underscored Sample and Batelaan’s comments.
The string of negative history about vaccinations and medical experimentation has a lingering effect on communities of color where many prisoners come from, which has led to the basis for some of their concerns and beliefs.
“California prisoners are no exception,” The Abolitionist reported. “At San Quentin State Prison, between 1918 and 1922, senile prisoners were used in testicular transplant experiments.” At the same time, “psychological experiments were being conducted throughout California.” In 1962, at the prison in Vacaville, California Medical Facility (CMF), “a drug company called Lederle funded a pain tolerance test using an enzyme injected into prisoners’ muscles, causing fever, chills, and extreme pain.”
CMF and the California Institute for Women also have a history of using unapproved drugs, incorrect dosages of other medication, “and the administration of psychotropic drugs as punishment or control by non-medical corrections personnel,” The Abolitionist reported.
Kenny Rogers, a white-63-year-old who has been incarcerated for 13 years, described himself as a “proud Christian, conservative, heterosexual Republican” in the Anderson Valley Advocate newspaper. He participated in the survey and said he would not take the COVID-19 vaccine. “My feeling is that there’s no science that says our antibodies go away,” said Rogers. “Why waste the vaccine on someone who has active antibodies, instead of older people who need it?”
Rogers represents the Whites on the Men’s’ Advisory Council, a liaison body of inmates that communicates with the prison administration regarding living conditions and other prison issues. Before his incarceration, he said in Mendocino County, California he was chairman of the Republican Party for two terms, a volunteer assistant fire chief, and emergency medical technician for eight years in Westport, Calif. He called attention to how coronavirus spread at the 168-year-old prison.
“The air flow in here is not satisfactory,” said Rogers. “This building (West Block) was built in 1938. The air filtration system is designed for 460 occupants.” West Block has been nearly double that number. “There’s no air exchange.” He had a lot to say, but admitted that much of his bias comes from the fact that he became ill from the virus because of poor prison administration and building maintenance. In 2019, San Quentin News reported that 12 of California’s prisons are in “dire need of repair.”
Rogers said he takes the seasonal influenza shot “religiously, every year.” On his survey, he wrote, “I trust in God’s protection. I’ve had COVID, lived and trusted my antibodies.” The first time he became ill while in prison, he said was at San Quentin. “This one kicked my ass.” Although in a cell by himself, he said “you can’t social distance in here.”
A report released by the Kaiser Family Foundation in January said in 16 states in the U.S. where vaccinations have been given, Whites have received them up to three times higher than Blacks, the Oakland Post reported. Of the 24 whites surveyed at San Quentin, all but three reported they would take the vaccine. Four had already been inoculated, and none were undecided.
“According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis, African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans are dying from COVID-19 nearly three times the rate of white people,” the Post reported.
Suspicions about medical neglect, abuse and government complicity with experimental treatment has run high for decades in African American communities. One of the best known examples to fuel mistrust is the Tuskegee Syphilis Study done on 399 Black men from 1932 to 1972. These men were infected with the disease but not treated. They had “bad blood” is what they were told.
Nearly 90 percent of all drug tests were done on prisoners, until the early 1970s, according to The Abolitionist. These tests and experiments were performed mostly for the U.S. Army, Dow Chemical, Johnson & Johnson and RJ Reynolds.
“I’m concerned about trusting San Quentin, given what’s happened here,” said Miguel Sifuentes, a 41-year-old Mexican who’s been incarcerated 22 years. He shares a cell with another inmate and was not surveyed. “Several of our friends have died and all of us have lived under terrible circumstances (San Quentin) created over 11 months.”
Asked if he would accept a vaccination for coronavirus, Sifuentes said, “perhaps.” Like those in the 4 percent, he too was undecided. “On the no side, because it’s new, like the artificial RNA component. It’s not natural. Plus, I’m concerned about the variants and reinfection. It’s not like we’re immune forever, just because we got infected.” Considering the benefits the vaccine could bring, he said, “On the flip side, I’d take it to have programs (at the prison) and to see my family.”
Like many inmates, Sifuentes took issue with the fact that no prison officials have been held accountable for what’s been called the worst epidemic in San Quentin’s history. “It’s hard to trust that they have our best interest at heart,” he said. “They still have 700 people in West Block stacked on top of each other, but they want me to take the vaccine.”
Twenty-three Latinx inmates participated in the survey. Twenty reported they would get vaccinated. Three reported they would not, some writing, “Because it’s still being under experiment,” and “unsure side effects.”
“A rationally minded individual would deduce his health and safety interest to take the vaccine,” said Harry Goodall Jr., a 46-year-old African American who’s been incarcerated 22 years. Like others, he shares a cell and said “It’s impossible to socially distance inside San Quentin State Prison.” He took the first vaccination and was awaiting his second shot. He was not given the survey.
Thirty-nine African American inmates in West Block participated in the survey. Twenty-seven said they would or already have taken the vaccine. Nine said they wouldn’t take it, and three were undecided.
Goodall said he’s been tested 22 times for coronavirus, “Every week since July.” None of his tests have ever turned up positive for the virus throughout the pandemic. San Quentin vaccinated him to reduce his chance of becoming infected, but he said it’s not enough. “The building conditions are deplorable. In the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR own admission, they admitted their housing units, due to poor ventilation, are a COVID haven.”
James Benson, a 65-year-old African American incarcerated 23 years, is a Men’s’ Advisory Council representative for the Blacks. He did not fill out a survey but did take the vaccine and was waiting for his second shot. “I took it because I’m concerned about my welfare and those around me,” said Benson. “Based upon the fact that CDCR has shown ‘deliberate indifference’ about my welfare, I was infected.”
As MAC representative, Benson and Rogers attend meetings with the prison administration. According to Benson, during one of those documented meetings a facility Captain said he took the vaccination, “So I expect you to get out there and tell these guys (other inmates) they need to take this vaccine,” Benson quoted. But he said it felt more like a command than a suggestion.
“I didn’t feel comfortable with it,” said Benson. “In that moment I was perplexed because every inmate has the right to refuse medical treatment.” Even though he took the vaccine, he said, “I can’t relieve anyone from a conspiracy theory they’ve adopted not to take it.” Part of the conspiracy Benson said is “inmates don’t trust the CDCR.”
None of the six Asians who completed the survey reported that they would not accept a vaccination, although one was “not sure.” Of the eight inmates who identified their race as “Other,” five said they would or have already taken the vaccine. Three said they would not take it. Some of those opposed to the vaccine wrote, “Because it’s a lie,” and “Not FDA approved.”
Thirty-seven men, from all races that were surveyed, reported being 50 years of age or older and have served 20 years or more of incarceration continuously on their current sentence. Absent the exclusions in the laws, these men are eligible for consideration to be released under California Penal Code section 3055, which established the Elderly Parole Program. State Assembly Bill 3234, passed last year, amended the statute to lower the threshold and became effective January 1, 2021.