By Fiona Davis
VACAVILLE, CA – In the California State Prison in Solano County, after visiting his family in-person for the first time in more than a year, an unvaccinated inmate recently was placed into a nearly 24-hour quarantine for 14-days.
Now, he and his wife are speaking out, describing their “heartbreaking” and “horrible” experience within the COVID-19 pandemic in light of the state prison’s response to the health crisis.
Due to the circumstances and prison protocols brought on by the pandemic, John Mendoza, an inmate at CSP Solano, went without seeing his family for 16 months. Finally, in July of this year, he was allowed to have a 36-hour family visit with his wife Kristen and their two-year-old son.
Despite both having access to the COVID-19 vaccine, John and Kristen have chosen to remain unvaccinated. John, who developed a fear of “being injected” in childhood, decided he didn’t want to receive any inoculations as soon he was old enough to make his own medical choices. Kristen stated that she is awaiting FDA approval and long-term research to be completed.
Kristen, John and their son provided negative COVID-19 test results before their visit, as required by the California State Prison system.
Before the pandemic, with in-person visits and phone calls, John maintained steady and frequent communication with his family and loved ones.
Mostly, when asked about this period before 2020, John spoke about the time he spent with his wife and two children. Both he and Kristen recalled regular visits that occurred almost every weekend, where she and their two children would drive nearly two and a half hours to see John.
Beginning in 2017, prisoners with life-time sentences were allowed to have family visits where they and their immediate family members could visit in a shared, apartment-like space in the prison for a 36-hour period.
For John, who received a 15-years-to-life sentence after being convicted of second-degree murder in 2007, this meant he was able to connect with his wife and children in a way he hadn’t been allowed to do for the previous 10 years.
During these extended visits, the family was able to experience what it would be like to live together, practicing the kinds of daily rituals they hadn’t been able to do before.
“I don’t even realize I’m in prison until I look out the window,” Kristen noted while laughing.
John also spoke to the impact these regular and family visits had on him and his relationships with those outside of prison, saying, “It’s just being able to see each other, communicate, connect, and feel like we’re part of each other’s lives.
“It was a [really] good experience. I felt loved. I was able to show my family that I love them,” he added.
Kristen and John’s routine was then upended when the pandemic caused prison officials to no longer allow in-person visitation in March of last year.
John explained that the pandemic “put a lot of stress on” him and his family, and he felt “scared” and “sad” because he could only then stay connected to his family through phone calls.
“I sat here and watched people’s families just deteriorate in front of me and I felt fortunate … but nervous that it could happen to me,” he noted. “For me, it was pretty heartbreaking, having to hear my wife cry on the phone and hear how much she missed me and to not be able to comfort her at all, and then to hear my son in the background.”
The couple stated that they had been excited to see one another again once family visits were allowed. While socially distanced visits had been available in the months prior, they chose to wait until they were allowed to see one another without masks or rules against physical contact.
With their visit in July, John and Kristen stated that it had been “amazing” to see one another after such a lengthy period of time.
However, once the visit ended, their feelings quickly changed once prison officials forced John into what he and his wife described as a “lockdown.”
Because John is unvaccinated, he—and several other unvaccinated inmates who had visited with their families—were required to quarantine together for 14 days.
Currently, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) specifies that, following family visitations, “[u]nvaccinated incarcerated persons also will be placed in precautionary quarantine for 14 days and tested prior to release from quarantine.”
Instead of clearly stating that this quarantine policy would be enforced, officials at CSP Solano remained unclear and undecided, reportedly telling John and Kristen that they “didn’t know” whether or not these protocols would be enforced.
It was only when their visit ended, and as Kristen and her son were escorted out of the facility, that they were told definitively that John would be placed in quarantine.
“Obviously I was happy to see my husband … but I don’t think I’ve ever been that sad or depressed in my entire life as I was after our visit … because to me, it felt like you spent time with your family, and now you’re being punished for it,” Kristen recalled.
Kristen also thought that her husband did not need to be quarantined. She noted that John had already contracted COVID-19 in January of this year. For this reason, she felt that it was unlikely for him to have contracted the virus again, as he likely developed “natural immunity” against the virus.
Research conducted by the National Cancer Institute does suggest that “people who have had evidence of a prior infection with [COVID-19] … “have some degree of protection against being reinfected with the virus.”
However, the CDC currently advises those who have already contracted COVID-19 to still be vaccinated. In their recommendation, the organization states that it is still unclear how long natural immunity may last, and cites emerging evidence that suggests that the vaccine provides better protection than simply recovering from the virus.
Kristen also emphasized the negative results of each family member’s COVID tests, and went so far as to have her son and herself retested the day after their visit in an attempt to prove John did not need to be in isolation.
Despite Kristen’s efforts, John remained in quarantine for 14 days.
After being escorted to a general population prison building, he, along with several other inmates, were each placed in cells.
According to John, those in quarantine remained in their cells for nearly 24 hours each day, and were only allowed to leave for half an hour in order to shower or make a phone call. For Kristen, who usually receives numerous calls from her husband throughout the day, this limited contact gave her a “lonely, depressing, horrible” feeling.
However, at several points during his time in quarantine, John said he also witnessed prison staff allowing inmates to come into contact with those outside of quarantine for seemingly arbitrary reasons or dismissing potential risks for further infection.
While some inmates were from the same visitation group he had been in, other men had already been placed into quarantine for several days prior.
“If we have something, we’re now infecting these people who have already been here for 10 days,” John reasoned when talking about the mixed group of quarantined inmates. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Kristen, who took notes on what she and her husband observed during his time in quarantine, stated that in one instance, two inmates were allowed to leave quarantine to retrieve their laundry.
In another instance, when a quarantined inmate needed to be escorted to a medical appointment, a non-quarantined prisoner was asked to do that, as he pushed the potentially infected individual in a wheelchair.
These breaks in quarantine reflect what John expresses as the importance of inmate labor in supporting prison maintenance and operations, especially within the pandemic.
“Inmates are doing everything to run this entire facility,” John emphasized.
In her notes, Kristen also wrote that one inmate began to show severe signs of COVID, telling those around him that he was “man down.” In response, prison staff kept him in the quarantined group in spite of growing concerns from fellow prisoners that he might infect others.
Based on John’s reported experience, these potential gaps in protection and safety protocol have been common throughout the pandemic. Most notably, John stated that when he contracted COVID-19, he was put into a different type of quarantine.
That time, he was placed in a gym with several other sick inmates, as the virus continued to spread “like a combustion” throughout the entire prison.
“You were pretty lucky if you didn’t get it inside of this environment,” John stated.
As he tried to recover, in a bunk positioned less than six feet apart from those beside him, John felt like he became more sick in the facility’s “horrible” quarantine conditions.
He struggled to sleep—the inmate positioned in the bunk below him shook the bed every time he coughed. John continually struggled to remain warm, as the showers constantly produced cold water, and an air vent positioned above John’s bed blew cold wind onto him. While medical staff checked his vitals twice each day, he stated that he received no treatment.
John and several other inmates wrote grievance complaints on the conditions of their sick quarantine. In response, CSP Solano reportedly stated that they could not control the physical conditions of the quarantine unit.
They also are said to have claimed that there was “nothing else they could do” to treat the inmates, as health decisions were not made by medical employees, but custody staff.
When considering these inconsistent protocols and potentially problematic conditions, Kristen reasoned, “If it’s convenient for the staff and it’s something they basically don’t want to do, then the inmates are allowed to come out…but if it’s something that benefits the inmates…then it’s ‘no, you’re in quarantine.’”
After experiencing these inconstant protocols firsthand, John felt that the state prison system did not enforce these quarantines in order to guarantee the health and safety of inmates. Instead, he believed that the rules that came with the pandemic were being used as another means of punishing inmates.
Specifically, John concluded that the 14-day quarantine he had been forced into was simply being utilized to punish inmates who chose to remain unvaccinated.
At this point, the CDCR does not require vaccinated inmates or visitors to be tested or quarantined. And while a recent public health order requires prison staff to be vaccinated by mid-October, prison officials are currently not required to be quarantined.
John felt that this disparity in health policy, for those unvaccinated and vaccinated, and for inmates and prison staff, showcased an unfair hierarchy.
While he and other unvaccinated prisoners have to be quarantined for two weeks, unvaccinated prison staff—posing just as much if not more of a risk—are currently allowed to come and leave the prison each day.
“I’ve been dealing with that my whole time in prison. Those double standards have always been applied,” John remarked. “It’s like we just keep getting sh** on every step of the way. It’s crazy… we’ve been struggling through this, and it’s just not right.”
“It’s not about COVID anymore. It’s about punishment and convenience,” Kristen asserted.
Even after John was released from quarantine, he argued that the consequences of these protocols could have a long-lasting impact.
Many inmates rely on prison classes or programs, to further their education, better themselves, or put them in a better position to be placed on parole or probation.
Prisoners at risk of being quarantined can feel forced to choose between receiving family visitations and remaining enrolled in these essential programs.
“It’s pretty commendable for the way inmates are conducting themselves during this tough time,” John expressed. “We are bettering ourselves and really trying to do better and to come home…and then we feel like the system is so against us…it’s so hard at times.”
For John and Kristen, the results of their family visit this July remain impactful. While Kristen stated that they would likely schedule another family visit again, they knew he would likely be placed back into quarantine.
“I would do it again because I’m that desperate and that’s all I have,” she concluded.
For this reason, John and his family have chosen to speak out against the conditions of his most recent quarantine, sharing their experience and struggle with CSP Solano and reaching out to state lawmakers and State Capitol officials.
“Even though I’m afraid of retaliation, I’m still willing to put my name out there,” Kristen stated adamantly.
“Because these things are true…and if nobody else is going to stand up for them, who’s going to? … I feel like they’ve punished me and my family so badly, what more can they do to me?” she said.