‘Impact of this trauma will stay with us forever’ – San Quentin Resident Reflects on COVID-19

By Julietta Bisharyan, Nick Gardner and Alexis Hogan

Incarcerated Narratives

In an article for The Sacramento Bee, Thanh Tran spoke out about the conditions of being incarcerated at San Quentin during the coronavirus pandemic.

San Quentin suffered a devastating outbreak following the transfer of over 100 incarcerated people from California Institution for Men (CIM) to San Quentin in May of 2020. San Quentin’s overcrowding at the facility and problematic response to the coronavirus from the staff has led to 28 deaths— the most deaths out of any California prison facility.

Tran explained how the incarcerated individuals at San Quentin “were forced to engage in practices that went against recommendations from the CDC.” For example, he remembers having to share a communal shower with 40 to 50 people at a time. He knew it would be incredibly difficult to social distance inside an overcrowded prison, which led to the realization that he would soon be sick with the virus as well.

Tran says after a few days of feeling sick, he asked the nurses for medicine as they made their way through the building doing temperature checks. When he heard the correctional officers’ keys jangling, he would crawl off his bunk to ask for help, but they would respond that they could not help him. Tran says it took two days before he received any medical attention. When he did finally get medicine, he recalls feeling emotional that someone finally saw him as a “human being behind these cell bars.”

Tran emphasizes how the dehumanization of incarcerated people during the pandemic is just one of the examples of how the CDCR responded to the outbreak at San Quentin. There was also no proper screening process before the transfer of individuals from CIM.

“The impact this pandemic has had on all of us, in San Quentin and in all prisons across California, cannot be understated – the impact of this trauma will stay with us forever.”

Tran contends that the adverse outcomes of the pandemic could have been prevented. “From the start of the pandemic, activists demanded that CDCR prioritize the health and safety of those in their care. Legislators held oversight hearings on the San Quentin outbreak and mismanagement of CDCR’s COVID response.” San Quentin has also been the subject of a lawsuit in which the First District Court of Appeals stated that the CDCR showed “deliberate indifference” to incarcerated people and violated their Eighth Amendment rights to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment.

Tran reflects on the past year and asserts that nothing has changed. “Until a few weeks ago, I was confined to a closet-sized cell for 23 to 24 hours a day for over a year… Despite recommendations from multiple health organizations, the San Quentin population has not been reduced to 50% capacity.”

Tran says that beginning on May 10, San Quentin experienced a separate outbreak of Norovirus, which proved the facilities “are still vulnerable to contagion and showing that the steps they have taken are not enough.” Tran ends the article by urging elected officials to hold CDCR accountable for their human rights abuses.  

CDCR Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes

As of Jun. 13, there have been a total of 49,376 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the CDCR system – 84 of them emerged in the last two weeks. 87 cases are active in custody while 607 have been released while active. 

A total of 48,458 confirmed cases have been resolved since the start of the pandemic, and 224 individuals have died.

In the past two weeks, California State Prison Solano (SOL) has tested the most individuals, 73 percent of its population. Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) has tested the least, 49 percent of its population.

There are currently 97,688 incarcerated persons in California’s prisons – a reduction of 24,721 since March 2020, when the prison outbreaks first began.


As of Jun. 13, 2,034 patients have received their first round of vaccines statewide and 68,775 are fully vaccinated. 72 percent of the total prison population is either partially or fully vaccinated.

2,089 staff members have received their first round of vaccines statewide and 32,993 staff are fully vaccinated. 53 percent of the total staff population is either partially or fully vaccinated.

Currently, Correctional Training Facility (CTF) has vaccinated the most incarcerated individuals, 88 percent of its population. NKSP has vaccinated the least, just 46 percent.

Centinela State Prison (CEN) has tested the most staff members, 63 percent of its population. High Desert State Prison (HDSP), on the other hand, has vaccinated the least of its staff population, only 24 percent.

CDCR Staff

There have been at least 16,815 cases of COVID-19 reported among prison staff. 16,611 have returned to work while 204 cases are still active.

28 staff members have died.

CDCR Comparisons – California and the US

According to the Marshall Project, California prisons rank first in the country for the highest number of confirmed cases, with Federal prisons following closely behind. Texas ranks third. 

California ranks third for the highest number of deaths nationwide. Texas ranks first, with Federal prisons in second.

2 in 5 incarcerated individuals have tested positive –– 4.4 times the rate in California overall. 1 in 525 patients has died from COVID-19. 3 in 4 incarcerated individuals have been fully or partially vaccinated.

California makes up 12.3 percent of total cases among incarcerated people and 8.2 percent of the total deaths in prison in the U.S.

California also makes up 14.7 percent of total cases and 13.5 percent of total deaths among prison staff.

Division of Juvenile Justice

As of Jun. 13, there are no active cases of COVID-19 among youth at the Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) facilities. 205 cases have been resolved since the first case was diagnosed in June.

A Year Ago Today

This time last year, the COVID-related death rate began to accelerate as CIM plunged into a large-scale outbreak. Between June 9 – 15, five deaths were reported, of which three occurred at CIM. The other two deaths were reported at California Institution for Women (CIW) and Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (CVSP). The death on June 15 marked the 17th COVID-related fatality throughout the CDCR. 

On June 10, 2020, it was announced that prospective transferees must return a negative COVID-19 test within 7 days of transfer. Investigations into outbreaks at CDCR institutions have determined un-tested transfers to be an impetus of multiple coronavirus surges. 

On June 9, 2020, mandatory staff testing programs were announced at San Quentin (SQ) and CA State Prison, Corcoran (COR). Similarly to transfers, staff transmission has been identified as a leading driver of department-wide outbreaks. Identical policies that ensued at other institutions have proven controversial, with multiple reports of staff noncompliance and loose enforcement by prison officials. As has been noted by observers, correctional officers represent a demographic displaying above-average levels of COVID skepticism and opposition to PPE and testing mandates.  



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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