One Man’s ‘COVID-19 Reality’ at California State Prison in Lancaster, California 

This report is written by the Covid In-Custody Project — an independent journalism project that partners with the Davis Vanguard to report on the pandemic in California’s county jails and Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Refer to our website to view and download our raw data.

By Cassie Gorman

On March 22, 2020, California State Prison, Los Angeles County (CSP-LAC) reported the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Over two years later, COVID-19 cases still affect the institution. As of Aug. 26, five housing units, or 25% of units in CSP-LAC, are currently in the “outbreak phase,”  defined as having at least three cases of COVID-19 among the incarcerated population in 14 days. 

The Covid In-Custody Project received a letter from Brandon Baker, currently incarcerated at CSP-LAC in Lancaster, California, and his writings reveal a nightmare of continuous quarantines, dangerous working conditions and other new and lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s become a recurring nightmare for me,” Baker writes. “We currently have two buildings on quarantine due to the outbreak… the remaining three buildings on A-facility [Baker’s housing unit] await the inevitable with great fear and anxiety. Covid and lock down will get to us all.”

Baker’s experiences in the past two years have been the most harrowing of his entire 22-year incarceration. He has witnessed 11 deaths in CSP-LAC during the pandemic, he claims, which has caused him to experience post traumatic stress disorder. In the past week alone, Baker has seen two elderly incarcerated individuals carried out on a stretcher.

“I’m triggered every time I hear someone scream, ‘Man down…’ followed by an alarm signaling an emergency,” he says. “As every second passes waiting for medical to arrive, I ponder, ‘will this person survive… and if not, could their death have been prevented?’” 

While these experiences alone are harrowing, Baker is also continuously affected by reported mismanagement within the CDCR regarding pandemic policies. According to Baker, the institution is currently in outbreak phase, also called modified program, a state of restricted programs and movement for incarcerated people due to an outbreak in his housing unit.

“It appears that we could get out of the pandemic if common sense policies were enforced; however, our safety doesn’t seem to be a major concern for this administration,” he writes.

Baker describes a system plagued by hypocrisy, as incarcerated individuals receive write-ups for not wearing a mask while correctional officers frequently flout the rules.

“Masks have become a fashion statement [for correctional officers], as staff use them for chin straps, mouth guards, or some dare to be defiant and not wear them at all,” he says.

Social distancing remains impossible, as CSP-LAC is one of many CDCR institutions with a population over its design capacity. Baker reports that mealtimes are “cause for a super-spreading event daily,” as people are sat four at a table for mealtimes in the chow hall. Social distancing is additionally impossible as incarcerated individuals are required to have a cellmate. 

For Baker, this requirement resulted in the administration moving him into a cell with an elderly man with cancer who recently had a stroke. Baker works as a Sanitation Technician in the prison, a cleaning position that increases his risk of exposure to COVID-19. Baker believes that by choosing to house him with an immunocompromised person, the institution is acting neglectfully and risking his cellmate’s safety. 

The incarcerated writer reports that quarantine remains a prominent fear among his peers. Being quarantined entails spending all day inside the cell, with the exception of a shower every other day. Additionally, quarantined individuals are not allowed phone calls, visits or access to recreation facilities. 

These conditions cause many symptomatic incarcerated individuals to hide their symptoms. Baker reports that some of his peers isolate upon experiencing symptoms, while others claim allergies and downplay chest pains, shortness of breath and chills. 

“You might ask why go through extreme measures, well it’s out of fear… fear of quarantine,” he says.

Baker concludes his letter on a positive note, espousing hope that the hearts and minds of humanity will soon be changed, causing a change in policy.

“Changes will save lives, and that’s what we need because we are in danger here.”

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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