“There will be death” from COVID-19 at San Quentin prison

Cases of coronavirus have skyrocketed inside California’s San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, with many blaming prison officials and calling the surge ‘preventable.’

More than 450 inmates are currently infected with COVID-19 along with 50 prison staff members, according to the state's patient tracker. The majority of the spike has occurred over the last 14 days and just one month ago, there were zero reported cases at the prison.

“Both north block and west block are filled with chronically ill people,” inmate Adamu Chan said. “I want to be clear, if COVID-19 begins to spread in those units – there will be death!”

The problem began when 121 prisoners arrived by bus from the California Institution for Men in Chino where an outbreak had already plagued more than 400 inmates. 

To deal with the spreading virus, the state decided to move those considered medically high-risk. While the state said the transferred inmates were previously tested for the virus, it wasn’t clear when or how close to their transfer date that testing occurred.

“It makes sense to try to transfer people out to create more space when it’s overcrowded,” Marin County Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis said. “The problem is you run the risk of seeding another facility if they haven’t been tested and that seems to be what occurred here.”

Inmates told KTVU the transferred prisoners were housed above them in upper tiers of a specific unit. Separated only by decades-old bars and not steel doors, they said germs and particles fell on them below and were spread inside.

“They let those guys come out, go to the yard and they had to touch on the metal to walk down the stairs,” inmate Henry Oliver said. “They used the same shower as we did. They were touching everything that we were touching.”

Over the last 14 days, the number of positive cases has exploded. State reported data shows more than 430 new cases among prisoners in the last two weeks.

San Quentin, like all 35 California prisons, has long been overcrowded and created challenges for physical distancing, proper health and hygiene practices, and routine sanitation.

“We’ve been super concerned about that setting because we know it’s sort of a tinder box,” Dr. Willis said.

Doctors expressed fear over observed conditions inside the prison and sent a memo on June 13, when there were 16 confirmed cases. The memo, obtained by KTVU, warned of the inability to contain the virus and provided recommendations to prevent a disaster.

Assemblymember Marc Levine who spoke out about the vulnerabilities of the prison and its residents back in April, said he and others were ignored when they raised concerns.

“A series of gaffes has led to this outbreak at San Quentin,” he said. “It was all preventable. They should have listened to the experts and they didn’t.”

A state spokesperson said officials are looking at ways to improve response efforts and has increased testing of inmates. Governor Gavin Newsom said in a press conference Wednesday that one thousand tests were outstanding and he expected the number of positive cases to increase.

Levine is concerned not enough is being done to mitigate the spread and wants to see an epidemiologist put in charge to contain the outbreak.

“I’ve talked to the governor about this,” Levine said. “We need to have authority in a doctor to make decisions to protect human life.”

The Dept. of Corrections is making room at prisons by offering early release to inmates with 180 days or less on their sentences. Those convicted of violent crimes or sexual offenders are excluded. The state hopes that freeing up space will help with physical distancing and slow the spread.

“When it comes to this pandemic, they have absolutely no idea what they’re doing,” inmate Kerry Rudd said.

San Quentin inmates told KTVU in letters in March warning of “inhumane conditions” and “grossly overpopulated dorms.” In fact, hundreds of them signed a petition worried about the virus and claiming there was a lack of personal protective equipment and little social distancing.

The Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it was moving some inmates to vacant spaces, providing reusable cloth masks and hand sanitizer, and limiting movement to slow the spread between housing facilities.

Still, at least 40% of all inmates at San Quentin are elderly and more than half are considered medically high-risk for COVID-19 complications. So far, nearly 10% of the overall 3,500 inmates have tested positive.

“I don’t want to see them [my friends] die,” inmate Rahsaan Thomas said. “I don’t know if I’m tough enough to survive COVID-19. I don’t want to go through that.”