In the Middle of a Pandemic, Prisoners at San Quentin Are Punished for Being Sick
Prisoners are reluctant to report when they’re feeling sick, because they know they’ll be sent to solitary confinement.
Juan Moreno Haines is an award-winning incarcerated journalist and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.
At around 2 a.m. on May 4, Ronald Carter heard his cellmate cry out in agony. “He said he felt dizzy, heated, and couldn’t even hold his head up, so I turned the fan on him,” he said.
Carter, 55, and his cellmate, Edward Scott, 52, live in San Quentin State Prison’s North Block, where more than 700 prisoners occupy 414 cells—nearly twice the designed capacity.
Carter has been incarcerated at San Quentin for about seven of the 23 years in a 42-years-to-life sentence under California’s Three Strikes Law. Scott is serving an 88-year sentence; he has been incarcerated since 1991 and at San Quentin since 2011. A new law allowed him to appear before the parole board in February, but he was denied release and told to return in three years.
All of California’s 35 prisons have been locked down since mid-March to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Ralph Diaz, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, asked state prisoners to tell a doctor or nurse if they feel symptoms of COVID-19, and said that doing so would help stop the spread of the virus and keep everyone safe.
At San Quentin, however, prisoners are reluctant to report when they’re sick—everyone knows they’ll be sent to Carson, known as The Hole, where prisoners are kept in the punishing conditions of solitary confinement.
For months, San Quentin reported that no prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19, though a staff member tested positive in March. But in late May, some prisoners from the California Institution for Men, which has had one of the deadliest outbreaks in the state’s prison system, were transferred to San Quentin, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Many of the men were not tested in the weeks leading up to their transfer to San Quentin, the Chronicle reported; shortly after the transfer, several of them tested positive.
In a statement, the corrections department said that the men were transferred from CIM because they were at high risk for complications from COVID-19. The department maintained that the men were tested prior to being moved, and said that some of them tested positive upon arrival.
The virus has since spread rapidly. As of today, more than 300 prisoners at San Quentin are positive for COVID-19.
As the outbreak grows, the system of punishing people for being sick may make it harder for the prison to contain it.
On that night in May, Carter wanted to call for medical assistance immediately, but Scott was worried about both of them being sent to The Hole.
Carter was surprised at his cellmate’s response. “You could be dying,” he said. “Don’t worry about anything but your health.” Scott agreed, and Carter called for help.
“I had to keep calling, ‘Man down!’ for about 10 minutes before the correctional officers came,” Carter said. When they arrived, Scott said, he couldn’t stand up and everything seemed to be spinning.
The correctional officers called for medical help. It took another 10 minutes before a nurse showed up.
Upon arrival, the nurse asked Scott if he could stand up and Scott said no, Carter said. The nurse then asked Scott if he could walk down the stairs. When he said no, the prisoner paramedics were called and arrived “fairly quickly” to transport Scott to San Quentin’s Triage and Treatment Area, Carter said.
While sitting in TTA, Scott says he was trying to “get his bearings.”
“I was given some kind of medication, but it didn’t help,” Scott said. “The TTA nurse and CO were making light of my situation, saying that guys were coming in with trumped-up illnesses because of COVID-19. I had to explain to them that there was something really wrong with me.”
Scott says even though he threw up a couple times, the nurse tried to send him back to North Block in a wheelchair. But he couldn’t get off the bed.
A doctor showed up around 9 a.m. and conducted tests that showed Scott suffered from vertigo. They determined that he needed care that San Quentin could not provide. Scott was transferred out of the prison to Marin General Hospital. There, an MRI revealed a black spot on Scott’s cerebellum.
“That’s when they told me I had a mild stroke,” Scott said. “They gave me some medication for vertigo, treated me for three days, then sent me back to San Quentin.”
Because of the pandemic, prisoners entering CDCR facilities from the outside have to quarantine for 14 days. And so Scott was sent to The Hole.
Right after he returned to San Quentin, Scott was quarantined in the prison’s hospital as he underwent physical therapy. But he was discharged four days later. A nurse told him they needed his bed for someone who just got out of surgery.
He says he was kept in unsanitary conditions in Carson, in an environment that hardly lent itself to recovery.
“When I was sent to Carson, I was given one bed sheet the whole 10 days. The cell was filthy. The showers looked like they were never cleaned, so I took bird baths in my cell,” Scott said. “The way I was treated made me feel like I did something wrong. My property was taken, and as of today, I still haven’t gotten it all back.”
As of June 19, he said his belongings still hadn’t been returned to him—including some irreplaceable items like family photos—and that he had filed a grievance about it.
The unit is not set up to provide medical care, he said. “When people get sick, I think they’d get a better response if they’d at least put us in a place where there’s medical staff or with custody that understands that we’re there for medical and they don’t have to handcuff us every time we leave the cell,” Scott said. “We should be able to keep some of our property.”
Prisoners sent to Carson during seasonal flu outbreaks have also reported harsh, unsanitary conditions there in the past.
A CDCR spokesperson did not answer a question from The Appeal about conditions inside Carson, and it is unclear how things may have changed since Scott was held there. “Since the global coronavirus pandemic hit our community, the department has worked tirelessly to implement measures to protect staff, the incarcerated population, and the community at-large,” the department said in a statement.
Carter had his own experience with The Hole about five years ago, when, he says, a confidential informant falsely accused him of plotting an attack on correctional officers. During the investigation, Carter was held in Carson. He said it took four and a half months to clear his name.
“The first six cells on the first and second tiers have sliding glass doors and they are filthy,” he recalled. “I don’t think that’s the place you’d want to send someone who has this killer disease.”
“If it’s for medical, then put in decent mattresses, fresh linen, TVs and have it regularly cleaned and sanitized,” he said. “Staff it with medical people. It should be more of a hospital setting, instead of The Hole.”
“If people are more worried about staying out of The Hole instead of getting medical help, then there’s something wrong,” Carter said.