Survivor’s story: released San Quentin inmate battled COVID-19 behind bars

Night and day he gasped for air. He fainted twice. His bones ached. And sweat poured constantly off his virus-stricken body.

So, he prayed. He prayed for his life. And all around him other men -- inmates at San Quentin State Prison -- did the same.
“It was a real frightening mood. Everyone in there was scared. All you can hear was ‘I pray to God that I don't catch COVID. I don't wanna die.’” 

Kenneth Larkins is just one of more than 2,000 inmates at the Marin County prison who has tested positive for the coronavirus.

But he is the first to speak publicly and in person about the ordeal of fighting the deadly virus while locked down at the embattled San Quentin State Prison.

"Inside it was like being in a chicken coop with all of our lives on the line,” said  Larkins, 57.

A dozen have died so far at a place that had zero cases of the coronavirus two months ago. It wasn’t until the state suddenly transferred 121 inmates from the California Institution for Men in Chino, where there had been an outbreak and death.

“They had us using the same showers that these inmates were using so everything that they used, we used,” Larkins explained. “It was very easy for us to get infected.”

Part of the problem was none of the transfers had been tested for the virus in weeks before arriving at San Quentin. It wasn’t long after, that cases at the prison skyrocketed day after day, sometimes by hundreds of new cases.

“Everybody started catching the virus,” Larkins said. “I felt like we were treated like research monkeys, like lab rats.”

Fears had been mounting for months as inmates wrote to KTVU and said they had no masks, no sanitizer and no social distancing. 

Larkins, who served eight months for evading police, remembers a month ago when he was moved to another cell and then started feeling sick. He said he has chronic heart issues and started to panic as fellow inmates were hospitalized and died. He and his cell mate were both tested and became just two of the more than 2,000 prisoners infected.

“We were just horrified. We couldn’t believe it,” Larkins said. “We felt like this prison put our lives in danger…all we wanted to do was come home.”

Prison officials have setup triage tents, a field hospital and recruited 250 health care workers to assist at the prison. Yard time, and phone calls have all been canceled in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Meals, packages and medication are being delivered directly to cells.

The California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections has released some inmates considered non-violent, including Larkins. He is now spending two weeks in quarantine at an Oakland hotel thankful that he’s no longer behind bars. 

“I’m kind of afraid to be in society, actually. As far as I know it [COVID-19] is still lingering inside my body” Larkins said. “I pray to God that I did not die and that I’m standing here.”

Brooks Jarosz is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email him at and follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @BrooksKTVU