The power went off at San Quentin State Prison, leaving thousands of prisoners and custody staff together in a dark and perilous situation in October.
In the prison’s North Block and West Block, about 1,500 men were moving around outside of their cells inside the two five-story buildings when the power outage caught them and about a dozen correctional officers off guard.
Some inmates were taking showers when they became enveloped in darkness. Initially, everyone waited for the power and lights to be restored in a few seconds as a matter of routine, but it did not happen.
In the prison’s H-unit dorms, prisoners reported a ratio of two correctional officers to one hundred prisoners in the dark.
According to the California Code of Regulations, Title 15, Article 4 Disorders and Emergencies, Section 3301, Emergency Operations Plan, “Each warden must have in effect at all times an Emergency Operations Plan, approved by the Emergency Planning and Management Unit, to assist in the preparation for response to and recovery from ‘All Hazards’ incidents. All hazards incidents are defined as any disrupt institutional operations or programs.”
PIO Statement: Gardea waiting for plant operation’s. He emailed them and has also said that Lt. Robinson has the answer.
There are no battery powered emergency flood lights activated in the West and North Block housing units because they don’t exist, and the backup generator system failed to provide standby power as it was inoperable for more than six hours.
The correctional officers in West Block had to use small handheld flashlights and one portable floodlight to help guide hundreds inmates to their cells with limited visibility in pitch black darkness.
As the building grew silent, correctional officers’ radio transmissions could be heard: “All officers are instructed to walk in pairs or groups of three or four.”
The power went out around 8:40 p.m. and didn’t come back on until shortly after 3:00 a.m.
When the power went out, inmates who required CPAP machines for breathing couldn’t use them. Toilets in the cells at San Quentin could not be flushed because they’re connected to timers that control the number of flushes per hour. The water in the showers and sinks went cold within minutes.
What appeared to be a dangerous and volatile situation for correctional officers and inmates ended without a major incident or injuries. In the first minutes, some inmates shouted and made jokes, but as it became apparent the lights were not turning back on, they found their way to their cells on their own as the public address was de-energized and of no use.
Some inmates assisted others by taking their portable battery-operated reading lights out on the tiers and to the shower area to help each other see their way safely back to their cells.
“I waited an hour for the generator to kick in,” said Lonnie Morris. “I just knew the power was going to kick back in. After an hour, I knew the generator wasn’t coming on, so I went to sleep.”
The stalled generator response to the power outage came several months after the Associated Press reported on a state-commissioned study that said California’s 12 oldest prisons are in “need of major repairs or replacements if they are to continue housing a third of the state’s inmate population…”
“What the state has done is ignore the need to routinely replace some critical infrastructure for decades,” said Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit organization that works on lawsuits involving the welfare of inmates. “Decades of deferred maintenance have led to this.”
An unidentified inmate who was returning from another area of the prison outside could be heard in the cell block saying “the hospital stayed lit.” Others speculated that the hospital must have a backup generator that works separately from the rest of the prison’s backup power.
“I don’t know who lives in those houses out there, but they’re all lit up,” said a volunteer at San Quentin who did not want to be identified. He said the houses on the right-hand side of the prison entrance all had their lights on. “Even the post office was all lit up.” He said he went to pick up his mail there the following day and that the generators at the prison could be heard.
Forty-eight hours after Pacific Gas & Electric cut the power to San Quentin, the prison was still running on generators. Even then the power cut off at least three times but came back on seconds later. At about 8:00 p.m., after the third time, however, the prison did an institution lockup, recalling prisoners back to their cells.