San Quentin State Prison in Marin County has become the site of one of California’s fastest-growing COVID-19 outbreaks. As of Monday morning, close to one third of the prison’s population had tested positive for the virus.
The prison’s 1,015 confirmed cases — up from fewer than 200 hundred a week ago — make San Quentin by far the hardest-hit facility in California’s state prison system, and one of the largest prison clusters in the country. The surge comes as many California counties, including Marin, see record-breaking numbers of new COVID-19 cases, leading health officials to worry that local hospitals may soon be overwhelmed.
Prisoner rights advocates and former San Quentin inmates have long feared an outcome like this. “I don’t know a person who’s connected with San Quentin who wasn’t terrified that this was going to happen,” says James King, who served six and a half years in the North Bay prison and is now state campaigner for the Ella Baker Foundation for Human Rights. “I am extremely concerned for our loved ones who are incarcerated right now.”
The outbreak is thought to have begun in late May, when 121 men were transferred to San Quentin from Chino State Prison in response to the COVID-19 outbreak taking place there. At least 16 of those prisoners, none of whom were tested for a month before they were transferred, tested positive after arriving at San Quentin. The virus has quickly spread in the overcrowded, out-of-date facility, which until the transfer had not recorded a single outbreak. Nearly 30 percent of the approximately 3,500 inmates are now infected, in addition to at least 89 staff. The outbreak at San Quentin is equivalent to half of the total cases in the rest of Marin County (the prison’s cases are counted separately) and about 4 percent of the Bay Area’s case total.
“We’ve been advocating since even before shelter-in-place for the immediate release of folks, because we knew that the prisons would be hit the hardest,” says Hien Nguyen, program coordinator at the Asian Prisoner Support Committee. “We’re really upset that the governor didn’t act quickly, when we know this could have been totally preventable.”
On June 15, a group of UC Berkeley and UCSF health experts sent a memo to California Correctional Health Care Services that recommended San Quentin reduce its population by 50 percent and set up a field hospital on the premises. “Failure to meet these urgent needs will have dire implications for the health of the people incarcerated at San Quentin, custody, staff, and the healthcare capacity of Bay Area hospitals.”
On June 24, Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods sent a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Ralph Diaz urging the state to immediately release prisoners with less than a year left to serve as well as those with serious health conditions.
With its large death row population of about 700 inmates, San Quentin has a significant elderly population. While no deaths have been officially attributed to the COVID-19 outbreak, one death row inmate, 71-year-old Richard Eugene Stitely, died suddenly in his cell last Wednesday and will be tested for the virus.
Public officials are beginning to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. State Assemblymember Marc Levine, whose district includes San Quentin, told the Chronicle this is “probably the biggest health screwup in state prison history.”
At a hearing related to the outbreak on June 19, Federal Judge John Tigar was brought to tears, calling the situation “a significant failure of policy and planning.”
King, and fellow former inmate Adnan Khan, executive director of Re:Store Justice, described the over-crowded, unsanitary conditions at North Block, the epicenter of the outbreak at San Quentin, and its twin, West Block. “It’s just ridiculous what a jam-packed, sardine-can type of a system they are in,” Khan says.
Each structure houses approximately 800 prisoners, despite being designed for about 400. The hulking cement buildings are poorly ventilated, but air travels freely between each two-man cell through the cell bars. The catwalks outside each row of cells are less than three feet wide. Each block shares 20-25 shower heads and a dozen or so phones.
“It’s like being on a cruise ship if the cruise ship was at almost 200 percent capacity and built in the 1850s,” James says.
King has been in frequent contact with people inside San Quentin, providing information that he says prison staff is failing to provide. On Thursday he spoke with a resident of North Block “who was unaware, specifically, that the virus was in North Block. He suspected it, because he’s seen the movement, but no one will tell him anything.” As they were speaking on the phone, the inmate told King that correctional officers were packing up the cells of four inmates nearby.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation did not respond to a request for comment.
At least some inmates who are infected have been moved into solitary confinement, leading many prisoners to hide their symptoms, King says. But the prison is quickly running out of such spaces.
“The only way to prevent this outbreak from not just consuming San Quentin, but the larger Bay Area and all of the outside hospitals is to reduce the population in these kinds of congregate settings,” King says.
As of May 17, California state prisons had released about 3,500 inmates. But in such a massive, overcrowded prison system — hovering around the 137.5 percent capacity limit imposed by the Supreme Court in 2017 — that’s just a drop in the bucket.
“To even get to 100 percent capacity, they need to release 20,000 people,” says Anoop Prasad, a staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “And none of the things Newsom is talking about are even attempting to get anywhere close to that level.”
Khan draws a direct connection between the situation at San Quentin and the ongoing protests over police brutality and racism. “You talk about these statues being tumbled, but these prisons are also racist landmarks,” he says. (African Americans are over-represented by a factor of five to one in the state prison system.) “I think protests are starting to move towards the prisons.”
Whatever advocates on the outside do, though, King is worried that it may be too little too late. “My biggest fear is that this outbreak causes mass death in the prison itself and then spreads to the outer community,” King says. “I think that only then will we put aside our false comfort of us versus them, as if the prison walls could somehow keep us safe from this virus.”