By Franklin Lee
“You have COVID… again,” said the nurse.
After last year’s fiasco, these were the words you did not want to hear again. As we entered the third year of COVID, we all hoped the world would be a bit more prepared, especially the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
A little more than a year ago, COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the world, especially prisons, isolated bubbles whose main source of exposure were through the employees and staff. The California prison system suffered terribly from the outbreak, starting in Southern California prisons, before making it to San Quentin, then blooming to all prisons. Rounds of inmates at Mule Creek State Prison tested positive for COVID and were corralled into quarantine zones erected in each facility’s gyms, where conditions were atrocious at best. The gyms were unheated, unsanitary, unsafe, and inhumane. Some of the facilities had only one toilet available during the nights for up to hundred inmates. The toilet was often clogged for hours at a time.
With families on the outside expressing concerns to the warden and California governor, inmates were finally returned back to a housing unit and reunited with whatever property remained, though many and their personal property were still displaced for months.
As Mule Creek continued forward, vaccines were administered in early February of 2021. After the second dose, summer seemed to be the light at the end of the COVID tunnel. Then the Delta variant hit, and the booster became vital.
In August, it was no longer about the spread of COVID. Politics entered the arena on mask mandates, business re-opening, and rights to not vaccinate. While unvaccinated inmates were transferred out, correctional officers and medical staff protested for their rights to remain unvaccinated. One officer stated that he was more likely to catch COVID-19 from the inmates than anyone outside the prison. Another officer commented that the vaccine was administered too soon without any concerns about testing or its effectiveness.
As the power struggle pushed on, Omicron, the latest COVID-19 variant, emerged as more contagious than its predecessor. With Mule Creek inmates fully vaccinated, the fears and anxiety about Omicron were minimal, but that all changed in January 2022.
The first rumor was that an officer was sick with Omicron, but later there was confirmation of a staff member supervising in the Prison Industry Authority testing positive. Within days, the institution returned to high alert, with limited interaction between buildings and mandatory COVID testing. Although everyone was vigilant, the seriousness of the protocols was minimalized. Officers and inmates interacted without masks, co-habitating and mixing in daw rooms and yards. Even those who were in contact with suspected COVID-positive staff continued to mingle with the population. Then people began to show signs of illness; mostly coughs, headaches, and dry throats.
The quarantine zones in facility gyms returned and once again inmates were shipped into required isolation. As inmates were told to “pack your stuff, you’re going to quarantine,” officers and medical staff shifted blame between each other on whose idea brought on the moves. Ultimately, it was discovered that medical administration of CDCR in Sacramento made the decision to move the “suspected COVID positive” to the gyms. Once again, the lack of information and lack of care were happening. When inmates refused to move to the quarantine zones, there were threats of rules violation report and forced removal as well as collateral consequences including removal of their roommates.
Anxiety spiked, masks became popular again, but the intermingling of inmates continued. Preventing the spread no longer mattered: we were all contaminated.
We all wanted to know what was the real driving force behind quarantining inmates in gyms as opposed to being locked in their own cell where all the amenities (property, bathroom, stability) were available. Many officers admitted it was about money: for each quarantined inmate, about $3,500 of state emergency funds went back to the institution. With the prison’s budget, this would benefit the institution. Also, officers who worked the quarantine zones received hazard pay in addition to whatever overtime they might earn.
Those inmates who moved to the quarantined gyms on other yards suffered inclement environments with harsh temperatures, minimal supplies, especially sanitation chemicals, and crowded living quarters, Bunks aligned in rows extended the length of the entire gym. Little was offered in the way of medical treatment or information. Most of the inmates had mild or no symptoms, but it was not COVID that caused the most harm.
In California institutions, facilities are divided by security levels with the highest level (IV), housing inmates with the longest sentences and serious disciplinary histories. Mixing the different levels is a security issue, as Level IV inmates have less to lose and are more likely to prey on those who were lower level and better behaved and docile. There were many stories of violence, thievery, and abuse that went ignored as more and more inmates were mashed into the gyms, regardless of custody level. Throughout the day and into the nights, patrols of inmates scouted the population, pilfering unattended property and preying on the weak and elderly. Even though the zones were ostensibly monitored by officers, they often stayed in the back office, unaware or unconcerned of the dangers beyond their door.
One inmate, “David,” experienced it firsthand. As a Level I inmate, the lowest security level, he had a short time to go until his release. Arriving at the gym, he was thrust into a situation with Level IV inmates already having established their territory, living in unassigned bunks and refusing to vacate even for those who needed a lower bunk. As the gym filled with incoming patients, assigned beds became a critical issue and the officers had to intervene with force. Officers arrived in droves in full riot gear and carrying “nonlethal ammunition” guns to escort everyone outside. Inmates were then sent to their assigned beds, where they would remain for the rest of their stay. When David returned to his bunk, he found all his property strewn across his bed and his cabinet locker (of which a limited amount were available) missing. Confronting the culprit, he exchanged words without considering the possible danger, and walked away. His next memory was waking up in an ambulance with an officer escort. He was later informed that the Level IV inmate had hit him from behind and his head struck a bed on the way down. When he returned to the gym, his property was gone and never recovered.
Another inmate, “Joe” shared a similar story. After arriving, he stayed on his bunk with his property and even stayed awake all night to keep guard over it. After a few days, the Level IV inmates were relocated to their own quarantine gym. Joe was told how the property of “C-status” inmates from C-Yard was rummaged through and stolen while in the gym. “C-status” means a loss of privileges including property. These inmates property was stored in a locked room in the gym prior to the new outbreak. As the quarantine zones reopened, mattresses stored in this locked room were made accessible, which included access to those property bins.
Joe also mentioned the health hazards from the unavailability of toilets, sinks, and proper showers for the large amount of individuals in the gym and the fire hazard of so many appliances (TVs) and extension cords plugged into only two outlets. No one was housed six feet apart, and proper supplies such as medicine to treat symptoms were unavailable.
“Jon” also shared his traumatic experience in the quarantine zones. Being back in the gym reminded him of his cellmate who had taken his life in the same gym in May 2020. After losing his loved ones to COVID and his chance for parole, Jon’s friend hung himself off the top bunk. Like many inmates who were just a number, no one ever gets closure or information. He was just another fatality, quickly removed so another person could take the bed.
Not all neglect occurred in the gym quarantine zones. One inmate, “Timmy,” passed away in his cell, presumably due to a heart attack. His cellmates were concerned about his health for a week. Timmy had informed them that he was a part of a clinical trial for the new drug Evushield, to protect immunocompromised patients from getting COVID-19. After receiving the treatment, his health deteriorated quickly, but his fears of being moved to the quarantine gyms kept him from seeking further medical assistance. One of the possible side effects of Evushield is a serious cardiac event. On his final day, he was in and out of consciousness, unable to sit up and unable to request the proper help. Even after being carted away and pronounced dead, no one in his room knew what really happened or had any way to contact his family.
This is the fate of California inmates confined in a system that herds us as “cash cows” rather than human beings. The lack of compassion, standards of care, and accountability has led to an abuse of power for financial gain rather than true rehabilitation. If the system that was supposed to prepare us to be better citizens continues to fail and abandons us, how are we to be expected to change? In this time of pandemic, characters are shaped by how people handle emergency situations. It would seem the CDCR would rather cash in on our lives than preserve them.
Franklin Lee is incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison