Timothy Hicks wrote the following article well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit San Quentin. It foretells the disaster that would unfold at prisons generally and at San Quentin in particular.
The Corona Virus has hit the U.S., prompting a fear is that it may hit prisons, with many questioning its possible impact.
“Given the volume of incarcerated people in America, the conditions under which they are detained, and the current spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, there is every reason to question whether American detention facilities, as a whole, are up to the challenge,” said Nina J. Ginsberg, the president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
According to Business Insider, the US prison and jail systems have more than two million people incarcerated.
“They’re unique because these people are in tight confines, often tightly packed,” said Dr. Burton Bentley II, emergency medical physician and founder of the consulting firm Elite Medical Experts.
The respiratory virus has sickened almost 100,000 people worldwide, reported the Marshall Project. Almost 5000 people have died so far with many of the initial deaths in Wuhan, China where the virus originated.
At San Quentin, prison officials are taking preventive measures to stop the virus from spreading into the prison from the outside. They have shut down the visiting room at the prison, as well as all the volunteer-led programs.
“I’m going to miss my wife,” said Arthur D. Jackson. “But, she understands why they would do that, because if it got in here in this close environment it would spread like wildfire. Although, I am conflicted and I miss my wife I do understand and I know it is for the best,” said Jackson.
Earlier, college classes within the prison closed down because of the coronavirus.
“It’s disheartening,” said Jackson, who works as the main clerk for Mt. Tamalpais College (formally known as Patten College.) “It’s going to stagnate a lot of guys’ programs and put their education on hold. Some people are working on their A.A. degrees and earning credits that can reduce their time they spend in prison.”
“The suspension is a hiccup but I really commend the college staff for making that move to suspend its program voluntarily. It shows how much they really care for us in this community in prison,” Jackson added.
According to local news agencies, schools and other social gathering places were recently shut down and those elderly and most vulnerable to the virus were advised to stay home. Now, everyone in the six Bay Area counties has been told to “shelter in place.” Only those in the most essential services will continue to go to their workplaces.
“There is no way to stop it in prison,” said Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office. Specter has been briefed by correctional officials on plans how to handle the COVID – 19 behind bars. This theory is based on protocols on how the prison system handled the flu virus.
In China, the prisons have become a hotbed for the new coronavirus, reported the Business Insider. Iran has already had outbreaks in their prisons of the Covid-19 virus.
According to a Prison Policy Initiative report, some of the considerations to combat the coronavirus:
Release medically fragile and older adults from prisons and jails. Those with complex medical needs are more than likely to be affected. That will reduce the need of care for those who have chronic illnesses. It will also help prevent them from being infected by viral infections like COVID-19. Iran has already given temporary leaves to a quarter of its prison population, said the report.
Other solutions the report lists: Lowering jail admissions to reduce “jail churns.” To reduce the churns some state leaders are re-classifying misdemeanor offenses, reducing parole or probation meetings and even eliminating parole and probation revocations for technical violations altogether.
A joint statement by 31 elected prosecutors from jurisdictions throughout the US supports such changes and also advocates for immediately releasing those who are within six months of finishing their sentences, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
Meanwhile, Yale School of Public Health epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves blames the prisons for having many issues that are hazardous. “Prisons throw people into the paths of epidemics, whether it is TB or HIV or corona virus, said Gonsalves.” He continued, “People without proper ventilation is a perfect breeding ground for quick transmission of any respiratory virus.”
People who are incarcerated do have health care, but he doubts that it is adequate. “Prison healthcare isn’t what it should be,” said Gonslaves. “The question is whether the U.S., state and local correctional facilities are up to the task of preventing infections and whether they have necessary resources to care for the sick, and I’m not sure they are up to the task.”
By Alfred King, Journalism Guild Writer
America’s current healthcare system makes things worse for many of those who are incarcerated in jails and prisons, according to nymag.com.
America’s for-profit healthcare system causes decisions in jails and prisons to be made wholly on the basis of cost, the Oct. 1 article reported. The story highlighted several examples from Alabama.
“Conditions in jails and prisons are torturous; Alabama in particular has drawn national attention for the violence and degradation that mark its correctional facilities,” the story reported.
A ProPublica investigation revealed that in Alabama, sheriffs in at least 15 of its 67 counties issued what is termed a “medical bond” to jail inmates. This allowed them to be released back into the community for needed medical treatment to avoid prisons providing costly medical aid.
Cases going back to 1996 were examined, with the most occurring in 2013. This practice especially prevalent in Alabama’s poor rural counties, where on-site professional medical care is absent, the story said.
One example: Scottie Davis, 38, an inmate at the Lauderdale County Jail, suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed, unable to speak, stand or perform daily task. Davis was released from custody on “medical bond” the next day though he could not sign the release form. Davis was then responsible for all his own medical debts.
A judge normally determines when an inmate can be released on bond when he cannot sign the release form, but in Davis’ case it was the sheriff, the story reported.
Michael Tidwell, 42, a diabetic, arrested in 2013 for violating probation, had a blood sugar spike while in custody, when Washington County jail employees did not medicate him properly, the story said.
On his fourth day in jail, Tidwell got worse, began to vomit on and off for the following 48 hours, spending his last two days in custody in and out of consciousness, losing 17 pounds in the process, records show.
Deputies propped him up, placing a pen in his hand to sign a release form, before they transported him to a hospital.
“It’s accomplished what we wanted to accomplish; it’s saved us some money,” Sheriff Rick Singleton of Lauderdale County told ProPublica.
Arizona state prisoners are being charged for their medical expenses when they’re taken to the hospital for using illegal substances, reported The Appeal.
The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) enacted this policy back in March of this year. Prior to this policy, the department charged prisoners co-pays for healthcare visits and the full cost of positive urinalysis tests for substance abuse.
“From a public health perspective this is the worst policy imaginable,” said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. “The solution is treatment, not punishment. This policy is just reflexively punitive and entirely counterproductive.”
In a statement about the new restitution policy, Arizona public information officer Bill Lamoreaux said it was designed to hold prisoners accountable for their own actions. “ADC understands that the struggle with addiction is not an easy one,” he wrote. “However, obtaining contraband illegal drugs while incarcerated requires a series of deliberate and extremely poor choices.”
The ADC reports that 78% of those entering Arizona prisons have problems with addiction. Only 3,000 prisoners (out of 42,000) are offered treatment options each year.
Lamoreaux told The Appeal that it’s difficult to find enough substance abuse counselors who want to work in prisons.
Karen Hellman, division director of Inmate Programs & Reentry for the ADC, made a similar point at the state House Judiciary Committee in March. “I could not today treat everyone in the system who needed treatment immediately,” she said. “The need of the inmates is greater than our capacity to deliver.”
Dr. Josiah Rich, director of The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at The Miriam Hospital, does not think Arizona’s new policy will be successful. “People don’t decide …‘Oh, I better not overdose today because I might have to pay money from my account for the treatment I’m going to need.’”
Dr. Kimberly Sue, who has hands-on experience working with incarcerated prisoners at Rikers Island, explained that those who use drugs while in jail may be stressed by multiple problems.
She said that incarcerated people, particularly those with underlying mental health or substance abuse issues, will often self-medicate because of the misery of prison,” The Appeal reported.
Almost 20 years ago, Andrew Yancy felt a small lump on his neck. He told a nurse he thought it was a spider bite. There were examinations and tests — the results shocked him — he had been infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Since then, Yancy says he’s serious about educating people about HIV. He had a chance to make good on his word, when two local non-profits geared to serve those suffering from HIV/AIDS came to San Quentin the day after World AIDS Day.
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a term that applies to the advanced stages of HIV infection.
“The most important thing is keeping the conversation going,” Yancy said, “and not for just HIV patients — everyone needs to be involved.”
“This is an important issue,” said Lisa Strawn, a San Quentin prisoner and emcee of our first-ever Transgender Day of Remembrance. “It’s about saving lives, not just the LBGTQ community. There’s tattooing, drug use and not everybody is going to be up front. This day is important in so many ways. So, it’s disappointing that there aren’t any medical staff here.”
The non-profits that came to talk to the prisoners, Until There’s A Cure and AIDS Project of the East Bay (APEB), work toward HIV/AIDS awareness and providing services to those directly impacted by the virus.
“We need to get past being shunned, afraid to shake hands,” said Ed Jones of APEB. “Those living with HIV should not be shunned away.”
APEB holds discussion groups to talk about the stigma and challenges faced.
“It’s a good way to vent and share when there’s something going on,” Jones said. “It’s a great place to go, and we feed you.”
The National Institute of Health reports that, today, there are medications for HIV treatment and to prevent its transmission, which enables a person to live a nearly normal lifespan.
APEB operates a health clinic that, in addition to offering patient care and case management, is involved with community outreach and testing. The non-profit also has a workforce education and training program, transgender support services, youth activities as well as pastoral care and counseling.
“I can relate to being here,” said APEB staffer, Mikiya “Fefe.” “I’m transgender, and I was in prison for three years and transgender.” He told the audience that he knows firsthand what it’s like not to be educated and not have support or guidance and then go back to the streets. I want to be a beacon so no matter what background you come from you have support.”
Dora Hanna, executive director of Until There’s A Cure, assists those with felony convictions obtain housing. The organization also has raised more than $23 million by selling bracelets to support non-profits focused on HIV/AIDS related issues.
“When you’re homeless, the risk of infection from HIV goes up,” Hanna said. “If you self-medicate and engage in risky behavior and have poor eating habits, the risk goes up. Until We Find A Cure aims to eliminate barriers and to make the drugs more accessible. Everyone deserves a place to live.”
HIV is found in certain bodily fluids of people living with HIV, including blood, semen, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids and breast milk. HIV can be transmitted by:
- Unprotected vaginal or anal sex, and, in very rare cases, through oral sex with a person who has HIV; blood transfusion of contaminated blood.
- Sharing of needles, syringes, other injecting equipment as well as exposure to other sharp instruments.
- From a mother with HIV to her infant during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.
If a person living with HIV is on antiretroviral therapy, which effectively suppresses HIV in the body, their chance of transmitting HIV to another person is greatly reduced. This class of drugs is available to prisoners in California.
For more information, write to:
8400 Enterprise Way, Suite 118
Oakland, CA 94621
Former prisoners of Arizona are being charged for medical procedures that should have been paid for by the state. Ashley Wilkeyson broke her ankle during a softball game at Perryville Women’s Prison while serving her sentence at Goodyear, Ariz. While still imprisoned Wilkeyson received a bill for $2907.
Arizona requires prisoners to pay a $4 copay for the first medical visit, and all further services are contracted and paid for by Corizon Health. Arizona pays Corizon about $200 million to provide health care services, according to Prison Law Office attorney Rita Lomio during an interview with National Public Radio (NPR).
Lomio represents health care issues of men and women in Arizona prisons in class-action lawsuits.
Keith Jones, a representative for a hospital that contracts with Corizon, said the bills inmates receive are coming from individual doctors, not the hospital. Jones deflected hospital responsibility by explaining to the NPR reporter that Corizon contracts with the hospitals. The hospitals contracts with doctors, and doctors contract with billing services.
That makes it difficult to find out exactly where the process is breaking down for Arizona inmates.
This breakdown has consequences for people trying to rebuild their lives after release. According to Lomio, “Undeserved bad credit due to a state contractor’s failure to pay its bills only makes it harder to find housing and gain full employment and to support a family.”
Lomio has accumulated more than $50,000 of inmate medical bills. She has sent multiple letters to Corizon attorneys and has had little success getting bills resolved.
A spokesperson for Corizon told NPR News that when the company is notified of unpaid medical services it resolves them immediately.
Yet Wilkeyson was released from prison a year ago and is still fighting medical bills from her time in prison.
“I feel like I’m just banging my head against a brick wall at this point,” she told NPR reporter Jimmy Jenkins.
Athough she has reached out to person after person within the maze who allegedly could solve her problem, she’s gotten nowhere.
“I keep getting the runaround,” she said.
“ And the collection notices keep coming” noted NPR’s Jenkins.
Brady Hall is a transgender inmate in Oregon who petitioned the court to transfer from male housing to a female facility. (Transgender people do not identify with the gender with which they were born.) She wanted to move from Two Rivers Correctional Institution —a male facility in Umatilla County, Oregon—to a women’s prison. In her petition, she also sought medical care to receive gender reassignment surgery, according to an article in the Oregonian.
According to attorney Tara Herivel, Hall is a woman in a male prison and that is understood as being extremely dangerous and problematic. “This is an area where, as we’re expanding our ideas as a culture of what gender identity is, it’s also expanding in the legal arena,” Herivel said. “I think it is a very important first step.”
In May, Circuit Judge J. Burdette Pratt in Umatilla County ruled in favor of Hall’s petition and ordered that she should be housed in either a single cell or in a cell with another transgender inmate. The judge agreed that Hall had proved that the Corrections Department had showcased “deliberate indifference” to her safety by housing her with male inmates, according to the Oregonian article.
The judge also said that correctional officials “must do everything within their ability” to stop inmates and correctional officers from verbally or sexually harassing Hall. She was also approved for gender reassignment surgery and is awaiting the procedure.
Hall, however, did not get everything she requested. The judge denied her request to transfer to Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the only female prison in Oregon. This was partly because the judge felt that she would be safe within her new living arrangement and partly because of her criminal conviction. In 2007, she was charged with sex crimes, which included sexual abuse of girls. Hall can still request a transfer at a later date, according to the article.
Nevertheless, Hall’s case may pave the way for transgender inmates around the country to be granted safer housing conditions. Transgender prisoners are often forced to live with people of the opposite gender.
“When I first got here I had a couple of inmates that didn’t want me to live with me because I’m transgender,” said S. Gustafson, a transgender inmate at San Quentin State Prison. “It wasn’t until I met my current cellmate that things got a little easier.”
“I feel that the guards here at SQ treat me with respect,” said Gustafson. “The only hang-up was that it took me several weeks to get my female clothing.” She also said that she believes that transgender people should be housed alone or with other transgender individuals.
“I feel the transgender policy can be a little bit better, as far as cell living,” said E. Herrara, who prefers the name Sage, adding that she thought that transgender inmates in a male prison should be provided shower curtains for privacy. (San Quentin recently added curtains.)
Herrara said she feels safe at San Quentin.
“I don’t feel it would be any easier at a female prison, personally,” she said. “For LGBTQ women, it’s the same way.”
Inmates housed in CDCR may be asked standard questions by their correctional counselors, such as how they identify (i.e. straight, gay, transgender, etc.).
These questions result from Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) policy, enacted to ensure inmates’ housing and safety concerns are met. When asked these questions by counselors, inmates are encouraged to be open and honest.
A sea of pink flooded the San Quentin Lower Yard as more than 100 prisoners and dozens of volunteers enjoyed a sunny fall weekend to support the fight against cancer. They joined to build, serve and inspire their SQ community in the 11th annual “Walk for a Cure.”
“We begin with a lap of silence to remember those we have lost to cancer and show support for survivors and those currently in the fight,” the public address speaker announced as the walk began shortly after 9 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 12.
Participants wore pink ribbons and “SQ CARES” wristbands as they enjoyed live entertainment and inspirational testimonies. Many shared their personal stories while walking together during the two-day event.
“I love being in here,” said Kevin Eshleman, a restaurant manager in the North Bay. He also volunteers with another group inside San Quentin. “These are genuinely good people,” he said while walking with a couple of inmates.
Willie Burrell said he was walking because he enjoys doing something positive. He said he is serving three years “this time” and has been learning skills during his three months at San Quentin.
“I feel so privileged to be here,” said Amanda Nixon, visiting prison for her first time. She works with breast cancer patients and is a 13-year survivor of breast cancer herself. “I began crying during the first lap, remembering those who have passed from cancer.”
Nixon said she has done other cancer walks and learned about this event through her connection with the Women’s Cancer Resource Center (WCRC) in Oakland.
The WCRC receives all the proceeds from the “Walk for a Cure” this year—about $7,000. Over its 11 years, the San Quentin event has raised over $50,000 toward the fight against cancer. Inmates, volunteers and outside sponsors donate to the cause each year.
“It is a huge honor to once again be the recipient of your contributions,” said Penni Hudis, WCRC executive director and chairperson of the Board of Directors. Addressing the crowd, she commented, “Thanks to people like you—our donors, who make all this possible … we make life a quality life for women with cancer.”
“About 70% of the people we serve are low-income,” said Hudis. She described some of the services the center provides as a lifeline for cancer patients, including an information and referral hotline and emergency financial assistance. “Thanks to Warden Ron Davis, all staff, volunteers and the internal committee.”
“You are truly making a difference in people’s lives,” said Christine Sinnott. She is the development manager for WCRC. Sinnott read letters from cancer patients whom WCRC helps, expressing how they are inspired by the donations and the stories of heartfelt community service by the incarcerated people in San Quentin. “I think these clients’ letters say it all. From the bottom of our hearts at WCRC, thank you,” said Sinnott.
“I’m so grateful to San Quentin CARES and the dedication of the committee volunteers and inmates,” Sinnott added. She said the donations of $5 each from the inmates are so meaningful because they equal about one week’s income.
San Quentin CARES (Compassionate Accountability Responsibly Expressed through community Service) has organized the “Walk for a Cure” since its beginning in 2008. It is an inmate-run program headed by a committee of a dozen inmates and four community volunteers.
“This is a great opportunity to build community,” said Hieu Thai, who joined the committee this year. Incarcerated since 2005, he will be eligible for parole consideration in about 10 more years. “Volunteers who come in begin to understand us and see that we are able to serve our communities.”
TienPhamisanothernew committee member who sees the value of community ser- vice. He said he is following in the footsteps of outgo- ing member Son “Sonny” Nguyen. They met in prison 14 years ago.
“He’s a good role model to follow. I’ve seen the change in him. Now I want to be of service,” said Pham. “My hopelessness has been con- verted to a sense of purpose. Today is the highlight—seeing my contribution.” Nguyen was on the SQ CARES committee for about three years and was recently found suitable for parole.
“I’m really proud to be part of this,” said inmate John Levin, who also joined the committee this year.
Pink-clad volunteers mingled with the men in blue, circling the quarter-mile track.
“This walk was started by inmates and keeps going because of the amazing things they do to keep this community alive,” said Kim Bailey, a community volunteer who co-founded SQ CARES 11 years ago. “Thanks to all of you for your contributions and for sharing your stories.”
“When you think of prison, you don’t think of this,” said B. Rousse, a philosophy writer who was in San Quentin for his first time. “The people I’m meeting today are hugely inspirational—full of resilience, good humor, friendliness, strength of spirit and a sense of community.”
Rousse facilitated getting a San Quentin inmate art show hosted by Cords Gallery in Oakland. The show is another annual event sponsored by SQ CARES.
“The entire gallery is dedicated to the show with dozens of pieces—drawings and paintings—during the First Friday street fair,” said Alicia Maria, who also came in to the prison for the first time for this year’s “Walk for a Cure.” She is an artist and art teacher who also helped facilitate the art show space and has held shows there for her high school students.
Maria’s student artists attend their shows. “People really want to make the connection between the art and the artists. During the San Quentin shows, the artists are missing. That’s what brought us to this event here— to make that connection.”
“It’s frustrating to me how much you are forgotten by so many people,” said Rachel Bailey, a volunteer with SQ CARES, helping pass out the ribbons and wristbands. She has been coming into San Quentin for about 11 years. “But we want you to know that people outside care about you,” said Bailey.
“They show us that people care about us and that we are a part of their community too,” said incarcerated artist Chanthon Bun. He has donated art to the art shows and designed the pink T-shirts for this year’s walk.
“This is a community- building event where the unique San Quentin inside community inspires people outside to invest in them- selves, improve, and redefine themselves,” said SQ CARES co-founder Chris Bailey. He said that all prison staff and volunteers from all programs and groups are encouraged to sign up online and participate.
This is the second year the SQ CARES “Walk for a Cure” was in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Personal well-being was the theme of the day at San Quentin’s 16th Annual Health Fair.
A diverse array of professionals from the healthcare industry ventured inside the walls of San Quentin to educate the incarcerated about physical and mental health.
“Everybody matters and their health should be valued,” said nurse Mike, a volunteer, “I’ve worked with underprivileged populations before and I believe that every person deserves the right to health education.”
The event was sponsored by TRUST (Teaching Responsibility Utilizing Societal Techniques), a self-help group at San Quentin specializing in teaching emotional intelligence and mindfulness. The 10-month curriculum is taught by Diana Kronstadt, Fran Engstrom, Quillen Powers, Helaine Melnitzer, and Susanne Siciliano.
Nurse Mike spent the day at the Nurse’s Station measuring the blood glucose and cholesterol levels of the incarcerated. The Nurse’s Station was one of several health activities on San Quentin’s lower yard.
Other screening areas at the Nurse’s Station included blood pressure measurement, body mass index calculation, vision testing and auditory exams. Incarcerated individuals filled out a tracking sheet, which was then used to record their results for personal documentation. When one of the student nurse volunteers gave an individual a result, they took the time to ex- plain what each number meant and give tips on how incarcerated individuals could improve their health through lifestyle choices.
“Y’all need to stop eatin’ all them soups!” one of the nurses yelled aloud in a general statement to all the men in blue, “All that sodium ain’t good for your heart or your blood pressure!”
Larry Vitale, a professor of nursing from San Francisco State University, has organized troupes of nursing students to volunteer at the health fair for the past 16 years.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship as our students are changed by this as well,” said Professor Vitale. “The educational aspect of volunteering here allows the future nurses to be exposed to the marginalized.”
Professor Vitale wants people to realize that incarcerated individuals are people too and to treat the less fortunate with dignity.
Another popular area at the health fair was the gym. Activities in the gym included chiropractic adjustment, acupressure therapy, diabetic education, and a Tai Chi exercise.
“When I got my backed cracked, I felt all the ten- sion leave my body,” said Yahya Malik who recently transferred from High Desert State Prison,“It helped with my self-awareness cuz I didn’t even know I was tense.”
He also enjoyed the Tai Chi exercise.
“I ain’t never done that before,” said Malik, “I thought it was a martial art, but it’s more like a moving meditation.”
Reverend Deborah Lee from the Asian Prisoner Support Committee led the Tai Chi sessions. It was her seventh year attending the health fair.
“I always get a lot out of it, to see all of the programs at San Quentin,” Reverend Lee said.
David Liao, a massage therapist from the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco said he had some apprehension before coming into San Quentin, but once he started meeting the incarcerated individuals his apprehension “melted away.”
“It’s awesome. I love what we can do to help you guys,” said Liao.
The diabetic station educated the men in blue about lifestyle issues regarding diabetes. The station was sponsored by the diabetic program, a 16-week class that teaches incarcerated individuals with diabetes how to monitor their blood sugar and teaches them about their disease.
“I think it’s important to empower the men,” said Kim Bailey, a nurse and sponsor for the San Quentin diabetic program.
In the education building, a mental health class taught the men in blue about general mental health, sports, leisure, mindfulness, through a jeopardy- style game. Handouts included: “How to Meditate,” “Gratitude,” “Recreation Therapy Boggle” and “Organ Systems Crosswords.”
Near the baseball diamond, the incarcerated got a chance to sit down with doctors to have their health questions answered, such as the ap- propriate amount of water to drink each day or what kinds of food to stay away from. After the conversa- tions, the doctors gave each
incarcerated person a granola bar. Also on the lower yard were tables for the California Reentry Program, Center-force, CDCR Mental Health, LRC(Love, Respect, and Communication), and Health Education(Alameda County Public Health Services and UCSF residents).
“We’re here to sign up people who aren’t familiar with our program,”said Anne F. of the California Reentry Program, “Whether they have a parole date or a release date, we can help get them ready for parole, get their resume ready for employment opportunities, help them find housing, help get the necessary identification they’ll need upon release Social Security card, California I.D., etc.”
The California Reentry Program has regular meetings on Tuesday nights and Friday afternoons. During these meetings, attendees are individually assisted by a reentry specialist to plan for a successful integration back into society upon their release.
At the Love, Respect and Communication (LRC) table, Dr. Arnold Chavez spoke to groups of five individuals for three-minute segments, explaining the principles of LRC.
“When we think of love and respect, communication is the foundation for both of these. We need to have strong communication skills,” he said, “You wouldn’t be here if you’d communicated better. Can I say that?”
Most of his audience nodded their heads in agreement.
At the spiritual healing station, prayers could be heard in both English and Spanish.
Jose Gomez, a volunteer at the spiritual healing table, attended with his wife Micaela Carteno.
“It’s a blessing for me, to give a little bit back as God has given to me. I receive love from God. I give love to my brother,” said Gomez.
The Center force table showed a video which covered topics such as hepatitis, STDs, tuberculosis, HIV, as well as warnings about risks associated with tattoos and drug needles.
Each San Quentin resident was given a ticket which list- ed the different stations at the fair. After going to each station, a stamp was given to each individual. After receiving three stamps, attendees were able to redeem their ticket for a toothbrush and a mini toothpaste.
“Before coming in, I had an expected fear of inmates, prejudices and anxiety, but I will recommend this day to all nursing students,” said nursing student Alina. With a smile on her face, she said about prison, “It’s not what it’s like on television!”
What can compassion do? Squelch rumors, train volunteers, and provide support at the California Institution for Women
In 2015, women at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona were traumatized by a sudden and unexpected death of a women in the Housing Unit who was very dear to all of us. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) housing, medical and responding staff all handled this death efficiently and sensitively. The Program Office called me, a program leader in our newly begun Compassionate Companions Program (CCP), to be present when the roommate of the recently deceased woman was informed. All of the community rallied to help those who reacted most strongly to this death. What became even more critical was to immediately squelch the rumor mill that the roommate did not inform staff quickly enough, or even that the room- mate was responsible for the death of her friend. A rumor partially inflated when staff followed procedure in placing the roommate in handcuffs while escorting her to medical for a routine evaluation. This poor roommate was traumatized by finding her friend unconscious.
I gathered all the CCP members in Unit A and asked them to help squelch this bogus and dangerous rumor, soliciting support from our housing staff. The CCP members were fantastic and within 24 hours the whole rumor mill had been put to rest. Each CCP member gave examples of how they squelched the rumors—in the medication line, dining hall, everywhere. This was a huge step in creating a culture of caring, empathy and cooperation at CIW.
To some, the concept of prisons and compassion seem opposed. Prisons are not easy places to live. There is so much internal struggling for power and dominance among prisoners, staff and protocols. But if ever a system needed more compassion, it would be the prison system where nothing, almost nothing, is given kindness or consideration.
The creation of Compassionate Companions Program here at CIW seemed initially to be a far-fetched, altruistic illusion in 2014. But with a little vision on the part of some administrators, a Compassionate Companions Pro- gram was begun. The purpose of CCP as authorized by then-Warden Hughes is to provide clearly defined support and compassion for fellow prisoners who are experiencing any serious illness, grief, loss or other catastrophic—emotional experience. Trained CCP volunteers maintain vigil for prisoners at end of life so they do not have to cross that thresh- old alone. The intention is to uphold their dignity and ease their suffering. The CCP does not provide crisis counseling nor does it replace nursing or medical care, but it does offer listening, companionship, letter-writing, and a broad range of support and friendship within the constraints of CIW regulations.
The Compassionate Companions Program is a nationwide program that provides training to community members—outside of prison as well as inside. Our initial volunteer group of 35 people at CIW received significant hours of training in palliative care, suicide and bullying prevention, and relation- ship/consensus building. Over the past few years, we have been able to train a series of new volunteers to continue the work. With clearance from administrative staff, CCP volunteers are able to visit with people at the end of life, those who have chronic illnesses or disabilities and are living in long-term care units, and throughout all of our housing units to help work to create a supportive community.
At the request of Mental Health Ser- vices, CCP members were asked to assist a woman who had recently received a terminal diagnosis. We went to see her after clearing our visit with housing staff and were able to provide support for her in several ways. We accompanied her to regularly scheduled medical visits and assisted in getting her immediate com- fort and needs met. She was having difficulty walking and needed a wheelchair, but prison bureaucracy was moving very slowly. She got a wheelchair that very day with CCP volunteers advocating for this basic necessity. The patient needed an increase in her weekly allotment of Depends. Once nurse was made aware of her dilemma, she got two more boxes that day and they promised to keep her supplied. We also reviewed her wishes for this last stage of her treatment.
She wanted to remain in her housing unit for the time being, and this was practical although not popular among staff. We supported this wish, and she was able to stay in her unit. We provided emotional support for her anxiety about her future.
She also asked for assistance in expediting her petition for compassionate release which her oncologist had written, but not in correct CDCR format. We accompanied her to a visit with the Chief Medical Officer who would make the final decision. Her release was approved and processed within a few days. These are classic examples of the ability of our Compassionate Companions Program group to sup- port one another and to bring a culture of change in a system that is generally insensitive, steeped in dominance and unaware of individual needs. We look forward to continuing to train new volunteers as needed and keeping this positive program going at CIW.