San Quentin’s Non-COVID-19 Emergency

By Kevin Sawyer

Kevin D. Sawyer is the associate editor for San Quentin News and a member of the Society of the Professional Journalists (SPJ) whose work has appeared in the Guardian, San Francisco Chronicle and numerous other publications.

Last year when COVID-19 started to infect people around the world, San Quentin State Prison was placed on virtual lockdown. But there was never a declared state of emergency at the prison. 

To be sure, on Saturday, March 14, 2020, prisoners in West Block were placed on “modified program,” according to the prison’s Daily Program Status Report. The remainder of the prison population soon followed. At the time there were no known cases of the virus at the prison.

The first time I recorded COVID-19 statistics in my personal journal was on March 26, 2020: “Today it was reported that the U.S. has passed China and Italy with the number of coronavirus cases,” I wrote. “It is now above 80,000 cases… More than 1,000 deaths have been recorded in the U.S., and more than three million people have applied for unemployment benefits. 

One year later, my journal entry on March 16, 2021 reflects the following coronavirus statistics:

World: 120 million cases; 2.66 million dead

USA: 29.4 million cases; 535,628 dead

California: 3.26 million cases, 56,674 dead

Bay Area: 415,194 cases, 5,685 dead.

The United States is 5 percent of the world’s population, yet it had recorded roughly 25 percent of the global COVID-19 infections and deaths. This country leads the world with its ignominious statistics. It also holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners too; some 2.3 million men, women and children.

Real or imagined, many people in the U.S. believe the past year has been a “difficult time,” “stressful time,” “strange time,” “crazy time,” “worst of time,” “uncertain time,” “unsure time,” or “unprecedented time.” Perhaps. For more than a year I’ve heard it all. But in prison it’s just time, and lockdowns are a normal part of the incarceration routine.

Incarcerated people manage to live through cabin fever, isolation, shelter-in-place, lockdowns and mental illness fueled by loneliness. It’s what free people have coined the “new normal.” 

When a prisoner’s loved one dies there are no good-byes, just an obituary that arrives in the mail with mom or dad’s name on the title. Prisoners have been dealing with such circumstances for years because there is no other option. The lucky ones may receive a call from the watch commander’s office telling them to “call home.” Everyone knows what that means, but it’s little consolation.

We’re prisoners, though, so naturally our lives are not supposed to matter. No public official will go on the record and say it, though. But we’ve learned this through the expression of other implicit statements. They’re simply hidden behind phrases such as being “tough on crime.”

California’s Court of Appeals recognized San Quentin treated its prisoners with “deliberate indifference” when it ruled on the Ivan Von Staich case last year, ordering the prison to reduce its population by 50 percent. Naturally, the state appealed. There were definitely violations of prisoners’ Eighth Amendment rights, not that it changed anything. We do have N95 masks, though.

I watched it all unfold, and from mid-March to early May I rushed to type about 9,000 words detailing what I saw. Before havoc struck, I wrote “Luckily, after more than seven weeks, San Quentin State Prison hasn’t been faced with the challenge to maneuver through the crisis on the same scale that has overwhelmed the nation, at least not yet.

“But if COVID-19 does strike California’s oldest prison, the inmates there are doomed, because the state, like the rest of America, does not appear to have a viable plan to handle this kind of emergency.” I was right.

By summer 2020, San Quentin was the number one hot spot in the country for COVID-19 infections per capita. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations’ (CDCR) own Population COVID-19 Tracking, the rate of infection per 1,000 at San Quentin was 297.1. Throughout the CDCR prison system, the rate was 42.2. At the time, the United States’ rate was 7.0. In California, the rate was 4.7. Since then, more than 2,300 inmates have been infected and 28 have died. Hundreds of prison staff were infected also, and a correctional sergeant died.

The first week in July was the worst. Every day, sometimes hourly, alarms sounded inside West Block after prisoners were heard shouting “man down.”

At the height of the crisis at San Quentin, I lived in the inmate-named “Tent City” on the recreation yard. Only a wall and one gate separated me from accessing prison grounds on the other side. It was the first time in more than two decades that I could get up and walk outside at two or three in the morning, unescorted by a cop. Sure, there were some officers armed in gun towers and others who carried batons and pepper spray on the yard, but that’s not the point. COVID-19 or not, I’m a lifer. 

Because I’m serving a life sentence, my custody and classification status make me ineligible to live in a dorm, much less inside an unsecured tent outside. I’m supposed to be housed inside that large fortress by the San Francisco Bay. From the interior of the prison, to enter one of those five-tiered structures, there is an iron gate and a big steel door one must pass through. To enter a cell, a steel lever has to be unlocked and pulled to release a bar that holds the doors shut, and each cell door has a key lock –– just like in the movies.

Now, I’ve never met a CDCR public information officer that I didn’t like. The ones I’ve met are professional, smart and friendly. What’s to not like about them? They’re reporters just like me. The only difference is they receive their marching orders from the state –– from the governor’s office on down to the secretary of the CDCR. Ask any of them if there was a breach of security with lifers like me living in tents on the prison yard during a non-state of emergency COVID-19 crisis at the prison. Only a fool would say yes. Like I said, the PIO’s I’ve met are very wise.

I was informed by two PIO’s that all press inquiries about COVID-19  at San Quentin were handled by the CDCR press office in Sacramento, California, 90 miles away. So, if the media wanted to know what was happening at San Quentin, they were directed to call elsewhere. However, if someone really wants to know what happened inside West Block during the coronavirus outbreak, ask me. I lived there, collected documents, took plenty of notes and interviewed prisoners.

Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in California during the pandemic. But not once during 416 consecutive days locked in a 4’ x 9’ cell, 22 to 24 hours a day, with another person, did San Quentin do the same for its prisoners. The Daily Program Status Report remained on “modified program.” With 28 prisoners dead inside of a year, due to the coronavirus, I’m not certain what constitutes an emergency these days, and apparently the prison system doesn’t either.

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 for more information.

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