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In Overcrowded San Quentin, Coronavirus Shelter-In-Place Measures Mean Decreased Quality of Life

With programming paused and prison jobs reduced, people inside will not be able to earn good-time credits and are cut off from a means of supporting themselves.

San Quentin State Prison.(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Juan Moreno Haines is an award-winning incarcerated journalist and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Before COVID-19 came to San Quentin, the state prison was already dangerously overcrowded. Now that the virus is here, crowding is making it difficult to maintain social distancing—keeping a distance of at least 6 feet between people, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Programming has been cancelled, and prisoners will miss out on opportunities to earn good-time credits and may face longer prison stays as a result. Many can no longer work their jobs, cutting off the only means that some of San Quentin’s older and longer-sentenced population, whose loved ones have passed away, have to support themselves.

On April 12, San Quentin’s North Block was at 183 percent capacity, housing 757 prisoners in 414 cells. West Block was at 191 percent capacity, with 859 prisoners in 449 cells.

Each 4-by-10-foot cell has a metal sink and toilet that two prisoners share. The bunk beds are 2 1/2 feet wide and 6 feet, 5 inches long. There’s about 3 feet of clearance between the bunks. Two 6-cubic-foot lockers are attached to the side and back wall. Additional storage space is found under the bottom bunk and on top of the back wall locker.

Overcrowding was deadly long before the pandemic. In 2011, the United States Supreme Court said that crowding in California’s prisons created an inadequate medical care delivery system that caused unnecessary deaths. The conditions violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment. As a remedy, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) was ordered to reduce the total prison population to 137.5 percent of the system’s designed capacity. The court left it up to CDCR to figure out a plan, and gave prison officials leeway to keep some prisons above 137.5 percent of designed capacity so long as other prisons’ populations were low enough to balance things out. The court appointed J. Clark Kelso as receiver to carry out the court order.

While the state has made some overall reductions in its prison population since then, San Quentin’s North and West Blocks have remained crowded. 

Spokespersons from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights wrote to San Quentin prisoners, “We and our allies continue to request for a reduction of prison capacity by releasing older folks and those with chronic health conditions.”

On April 1, CDCR top administrator Ralph M. Diaz and Kelso issued a joint memorandum to prison employees. “In order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and avoid the dangerous consequences of transmission, we have determined that it is necessary to accelerate the release of certain nonviolent inmates who are within 60 days of release, and some patients receiving hospice care,” it read. “There may be further steps at population reduction which may need to be taken in the next days or weeks, and we will inform you of those decisions if and when they are made.” 

To prevent the spread of the virus, new restrictions have been added to daily life. North and West Blocks have alternated access to the prison yard, with segments of the blocks visiting in shifts.

During a March 13 meeting with prison officials, the San Quentin Inmate Advisory Council (IAC) asked to receive notifications and status reports “during quarantines or modified programs.” IAC President Christopher Scull, who said he acts as a liaison “for policy issues and to dialogue between both parties,” led the meeting.

The administration responded that “communication is very important during moments like this.”

On March 20, a federal judge created a task force of lawyers, CDCR officials and others to address the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on California’s prisons. 

Prison officials report that since March 26, all individuals are screened every time they enter a facility or CDCR office. Persons showing any symptoms of respiratory illness are not permitted to enter.

On March 30, Diaz issued a memo to the prisoner population that partly read: “We have stopped programs, we have limited movement, and we are no longer allowing volunteers and program providers to come into our institutions.”

“The families of incarcerated people have not gone untouched in these decisions,” the memo continued. “We know the impact a support system has on an incarcerated person’s success is immeasurable. With that in mind, I have asked our partners to brainstorm ways to increase opportunities for engagement between the incarcerated populations and their support systems.” 

The reduction in programming comes at a time when state lawmakers are considering a measure, introduced in late February, that would prevent disruptions to credits due to transfers, and ensure that “programming is offered even if the facility is on lockdown and that credits are received when the prison cancels a program.”

Free telephone calls by Global Tel Link “will be available from 12:01 a.m. to 12:59 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays through the end of April 2020,” Diaz’s March 30 message said. “JPay is now offering reduced-priced emails to registered users at its current pilot sites: High Desert State Prison, Kern Valley State Prison, California Institution for Women, Central California Women’s Facility and Substance Abuse Treatment Facility. Free emails will be available for those who are unable to pay.”

On March 31, a program status report read: “All inmates housed in North Block, West Block, East Block, Alpine Section and Donner Section Condemned and Reception, will remain on medical quarantine to manage exposure to influenza. All housing units are closed to intake. Only critical workers assigned to healthcare facilities maintenance (hospital janitors), prison industries authorities (mattress and furniture workers), food services (meals are served in the housing units) receiving and release (vendor packages are delivered to the housing units), canteen (social distancing is practiced at the prison store) shall be released to work assignments after being screened by medical staff.”

Since April 6, those assigned to prison industries authorities have not returned to work.

“Phones, including non-confidential legal phone calls, shall continue with cleanings between uses,” the program status report read. “Arrangements for confidential legal calls (reserved for actual BPH hearings and emergent issues involving important legal rights) shall be coordinated through the litigation coordinators’ office.”