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Covid-19, American prisons, and the San Quentin Outbreak

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

“At our visits, we would just crack up,” says Belinda Morales in an interview with Aljazeera. Her fianceé Marcos Trevino, like many others, died a preventable death from Covid-19 inside San Quentin State Prison. Morales looks away from the camera to hide her tears. “He brought me joy. He really did.” Trevino was 57 when he died unexpectedly.

Mass incarceration has been steadily growing for years, and the significant mental and physical health risks that come with it have as well. However, the introduction of Covid-19 to the prison system has been responsible for an overwhelming number of cases and deaths from within.

The state has a large stake in the ever-growing prison population–even disregarding the enormous profit that comes from full prisons, the prison system needs to have buildings be at 100% capacity to avoid being shut down. This results in people, predominantly Black and Latino men, being fined, restrained, and eventually arrested for small things that otherwise would go unnoticed, like letting ashes from a cigarette fall onto the sidewalk.

According to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative, thousands of cases reported during the summer of 2020 were found to be from within prisons. In total, mass incarceration (the steady and rapid imprisonment of people) and the overcrowding of prisons was responsible for over 500,000 cases just over the summer.

“I’m anxious, worried,” says an incarcerated man in San Quentin State Prison to Aljazeera. “It’s still the feeling of danger.”

“We’re packed like caged animals… ready to be slaughtered,” another man says. “...less than actually animals, just objects.”

Another study by the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity mentions the 68 preventable deaths from within the San Quentin State Prison outside San Francisco, along with the 180,000 other reported cases. The San Quentin State Prison (SQSP) is one of the most overcrowded prisons in the state, although the majority of prisons hold more than their intended capacity– cases within SQSP have been booming, along with the growing demand for the drastic reduction of prison population.

One of the worst spikes in cases and deaths, referred to as the San Quentin Outbreak, took place in SQSP. In May 2020, 189 people were transferred from the California Institute for Men (CIM) in Chino, California, to SQSP, as well as the Corcoran state prison. Within a month, 130 infections had been reported–over half the prison population–and in the following months SQSP reached a total of 2,100 cases. 28 people died.

Due to the old, run-down nature of the building itself, ventilation is almost non-existent, and the severe overcrowding of the prison leads to social distancing being impossible. Prisoners are not provided with any other sort of physical protection, and guards walk freely between yards with no masks. “I used to tell him, ‘make a mask out of your socks,’” says Belinda Morales. “Because it’s killing people.”

If an incarcerated man displays or reports symptoms, he’s put in solitary confinement for 2-3 weeks–which leads to possibly infected people denying and hiding symptoms to avoid the torture of solitary.

In October 2020, the court declared the treatment of prisoners in San Quentin State Prison a violation of the 8th amendment, considering the almost certain exposure to Covid-19 in SQSP a ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ Justice J. Anthony Kine referred to the San Quentin outbreak as “the worst epidemiological disaster in California’s correctional history.”

Fortunately, the outbreak isn’t going unopposed. Various organizations, including StopSanQuentinOutbreak Coalition, the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, and more, are working towards the mass release of prisoners from SQSP and other overcrowded prisons with an overwhelming number of Covid-19 cases. Friends and family of incarcerated people have recently protested outside San Quentin, demanding mass release of prisoners.

Groups of protestors march around the building, chanting “let them go.” One woman wears a T-shirt with a picture of an incarcerated man and text reading “he’s more than an inmate.”

And the protests seem to be working. On October 20th, Justice Kline ordered for a reduction of the prison population by 50%–that’s the release or transfer of 1,775 prisoners. However, transfers could do more harm than good in controlling the spread of the virus. According to the StopSanQuentinOutbreak Coalition, the best step forward in protecting the health of incarcerated people is to make “a call for large-scale releases from San Quentin, [not] transfers that could lead to the further spread of Covid-19.”

The San Quentin outbreak is just one example of how Covid-19 can so easily make its way into unsecure locations and take lives, especially in a setting like a prison, where concern for prisoners’ safety is extremely low. In my opinion, protests and good reporting successfully drew attention to the overall prison system and the questionable-at-best treatment of incarcerated people in this country. I believe that underlying problems such as systemic racism, classism, and other major issues are easily illuminated when we think about the prison system and the treatment of incarcerated individuals in America–and while there’s not much we can do at the moment, staying aware and informed is a solid step in the right direction.

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