Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, San Quentin residents have struggled to cope with multiple waves of infections, but also the hardships associated with the modified programs and repeated lockdowns.
Part of that challenge, which generates often-heard complaints in North Block, is the frequent changes in the program.
“Every other day it’s something different,” said North Block’s Donovan “DC” Cotton. “Seems like things are always getting shut down for reasons that have nothing to do with us. Everybody is frustrated, which is understandable.”
San Quentin is going through its third COVID outbreak and has been on COVID-related modified programing (lockdowns) for over half of the last two years. During the lockdowns, access to phones, visits, yards, dayrooms, and showers is curtailed, while in-person programs and non-essential jobs are shut down.
“It’s stressful not knowing what’s going on, not knowing what to expect day-to-day, month-to-month,” Cotton said.
Carrington “C” Russelle added, “It’s been tough always having to pivot, trying to figure out how to program and stay positive when things are shut down or always changing. We need consistency so we can plan our schedule.”
Russelle explained that restrictions or uncertainty about the shower program — for example — could be a big deterrent to exercising or even going out to the yard, which can affect mental health.
Many incarcerated people are struggling with mental health issues stemming from the modified programs and repeated lockdowns due to COVID.
“There is nothing to do, no rehabilitation, no programs, no jobs. And all the uncertainty is stressful too,” said San Quentin resident Joel Esparza. “We’re packed in here and can’t even social distance, and meanwhile the buses keep coming.”
According to a July 7, 2022, joint memorandum issued by CDCR and CCHCS (California Correctional Health Care Services) in response to the COVID pandemic, San Quentin and other California state prisons follow the “Roadmap to Reopening.”
The Roadmap “takes into consideration the recommended guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the California Department of Public Health, and other stakeholders,” reads the memorandum.
Facilities and individual housing units fluctuate between Outbreak Phase and Open Phase according to the parameters established in the Roadmap. The programming disruptions and irregularities are a product of CDCR’s response to successive waves of COVID.
The joint memorandum also provides that inmates “received from county jails shall be placed into cohorts on quarantine status in a single housing unit/dorm …separate from isolation or quarantine housing units/dorms.”
Esparza has been designated to receive additional mental health support and treatment. “It’s even harder for me to deal with all of this. It seems like pharmaceuticals is all they ever offer,” he said.
Besides impacting his mental health, he pointed out the lack of programming is curtailing credit earning opportunities and lengthening his stay in prison.
“My future is bright once I get out of here,” Esparza said. “I have skills, I have a job lined up, and I could be taking care of my daughter and making positive contributions to society. But instead, I’m just another lump on a cot.
“They have an obligation to provide for us in terms of rehabilitation, but we are not getting it. We’re just stuck in our cells watching stupid TV shows — how does that help society?”
According to the joint memorandum, students will be eligible to receive independent study packets and will be administered educational assessment within their housing units.
Cotton explained that when staff does things here and there to help with the program, it goes a long way toward boosting morale and keeping things running smoothly — especially when staff helps make it easier to access the yard, the dayroom, phones and showers, or even to get in and out of the cell and the building during unlocks.
Russelle pointed out these are not just privileged comforts for the incarcerated; they are an essential part of a successful rehabilitative program. He said a consistent, functional program is critical to promoting a positive culture in prison.
“When I’m at [The Last Mile] coding, it’s like its own little world. So it’s tough not being able to do that on all these COVID lockdowns. We need as much help as we can get to have a good program during these tough times,” Russelle said.
During the COVID outbreak of 2020, when the virus was more deadly, CDCR was criticized for how it managed its prisons during the outbreak.
Since then the virus has morphed into more transmissible but less virulent variants. Mask mandates are being suspended in communities, testing is no longer required for foreign travelers entering the U.S., and health experts are now debating if it is time to treat COVID like the flu.
“At this point, it just feels like they are milking it,” said Esparza, reflecting a common sentiment in North Block.
“They really need to stop moving us around [the institution]. Just put a sign on the door and let us quarantine in our cells with cell feeding if we get COVID.”
He observed that almost no one is voluntarily testing anymore given the repercussions of a positive or a false positive test, and people are hiding symptoms because they do not want to be moved to the Adjustment Center (AC), better known as the Hole, which is solitary confinement.
Esparza said it is extremely stressful to move when you are sick, which is made worse by having to deal with the difficulties of being in the AC. In the process, he said, people are often losing their cell, their cellie, and even some of their property.
The CDCR/CCHCS memo provides that if not all inmates consent to testing, “the Warden and CEO shall consult with the RHCE (Regional Health Care Executive), AD (Associate Director) and CCHCS Public Health to determine if response testing has been adequate to transition from Outbreak Phase to Open Phase. In the absence of testing, the Outbreak Phase will in most cases be extended and monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms will be essential.”
“People are stressed out,” Esparza said. “I have PTSD just from being moved around so much and anxiety from wondering if I’m going to get rolled up and moved back to the AC. It’s not easy being in there with all the restrictions and being treated like you’re maximum security.”
“It doesn’t make any sense; it’s not even working,” he said.