Coronavirus: The invisible enemy behind enemy lines

Guards escorting prisoners on San Quentin’s death row is very hands-on, not wise during the pandemic. – Photo: Gary Coronado, Los Angeles Times

by Timothy James Young

There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in America. I am one of them. 

My name is Timothy James Young. I am a wrongfully convicted prisoner on San Quentin’s death row. Since I arrived at San Quentin on April 20, 2006, I have been navigating California’s convoluted appellate system and fighting to get my wrongful conviction overturned. 

Anyone who knows the inner workings of the criminal justice system knows that it is extremely difficult to procure a full reversal once one has been consumed by the belly of the beast. As daunting as the task is, my fight for freedom has now gotten even more precarious as I am confronted with a completely different beast.

The beast that I am referring to is COVID-19. It appeared out of thin air and has quickly become a worldwide pandemic. 

From the perch of my four-and-a-half-by-ten-foot prison cell, I have watched the virus spread from country to country. I have monitored the daily news cycles and have followed its path of destruction. 

Now that the virus has reached the shores of America, the realities of this worldwide pandemic have taken root. I watched as President Donald Trump declared a national emergency. I watched as Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a shelter in place order for all of California. 

I watched as the numbers grew and the death toll began to increase. And I watched as people began to panic shop, hoard and fall apart. 

As I watched all of this unfold, the question that haunted me was when will this pandemic reach the belly of the beast? And, what kind of wreckage and havoc would it create as it made its way into jails and prisons?

As an early part of COVID-19 prevention measures in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order canceling all visits statewide. This may have narrowed the manner in which the virus would permeate the prison pipeline, but it did very little in terms of keeping prisoners safe. 

Tim Young (18)

The staff are the primary conduit of viruses and other illnesses into prisons and jails. Regardless of any institutional lockdown, modified program or quarantine, prisoners are still placed in a precarious position through their encounters with staff. Here in East Block, where the majority of the state’s 750 death row prisoners are housed, there is no way to escape day-to-day contact with staff. 

Let me give some examples. In order for prisoners to go to the concrete enclosure that’s commonly referred to as “yard,” officers approach the gate to the prisoner’s cell. They unlock the tray slot, and instruct the prisoner to strip completely naked. They have the prisoner open his mouth, stick out his tongue, run his fingers through his hair, and after that, lift up his genitals. They then instruct the prisoner to turn around, show the bottom of each foot, and then squat and cough.

After the strip search, they instruct the prisoner to hand over any clothing or items that they are wearing or taking to the yard. The officers then do a manual search of the prisoner’s property. 

After the inspection they return the prisoner’s property back through the tray slot and instruct the prisoner to get dressed. Once the prisoner is dressed, he is handcuffed through the tray slot. 

At that point the cell door is opened up and the prisoner is physically escorted downstairs to where he is scanned with a handheld metal detector and his belongings are trolled through an x-ray machine. This might seem like overkill, but these are the intrusive, hands-on policies that prisoners are subjected to in order to go to the yard. 

If a prisoner goes to the shower it’s the same process as a trip to the yard. The tray slot is opened up, he is handcuffed behind the back, and then physically escorted down the tier and locked inside of a cell that has been converted into a shower. 

Chow time presents the same situational contact. The correctional officers wheel a big cart down the tier stacked with lunch bags, trays etc. They stop at each cell, open up the tray slot and slide each prisoner their provisions. 

Once the meals are completely passed out, they then double back and pick up all the empty trays and the trash. It is a rare occasion when any of these events unfold without staff members coughing, sneezing or peppering a prisoner with small talk, directives or questions. All of this violates the rules of social distancing. 

These are just a few instances of contact, and they don’t even include interactions that one might have with medical staff. Nevertheless, whether it’s yard, shower, pill call or chow time, the bottom line is that prisoners are in danger of being subjected to COVID-19 by way of staff.

. . . the question that is running through the mind of every prisoner in San Quentin is, “How many will die because they couldn’t get six feet of space and a damn mask?”

It is of no surprise then that on March 27, 2020, prisoners received administrative notification that one of the San Quentin prison guards had tested positive for coronavirus. We were already on “modified program,” but this new revelation meant that we would be going back on full scale lockdown and quarantine with no more yard privileges. 

East Block is a lockdown unit, so being confined to a cell 24 hours a day, and/or having minimal out of cell time is nothing new to us. What is new to us, however, is the threat of catching COVID-19 from the very people who are paid to act as our overseers.

The fact that prisoners are being placed on consecutive lockdowns and quarantines will probably not elicit much sympathy from the general public, and that’s OK, but perhaps they can at least find enough humanity within themselves to empathize with our plea for some common sense COVID-19 protections? At some point, punitive confinement has to give way to the demands of health and safety.

In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, you would think that prison staff would be required to wear an N95 mask at all times, but they are not! Further, as part of COVID-19 prevention measures, you would think that prisoners would be afforded masks, gloves and adequate cleaning supplies, but again, they are not! 

I and others have asked medical staff on a daily basis to be provided with masks and gloves so that we may be better equipped to protect ourselves from the virus. The responses have been the same every time: “There is a shortage,” and “Sorry, but it’s just not in the budget.” 

As I write this, word just came in over the wire that a prisoner by the name of Lonnie David Franklin has suddenly died under mysterious circumstances. The cause of death has yet to be confirmed, but the question that is running through the mind of every prisoner in San Quentin is, “How many will die because they couldn’t get six feet of space and a damn mask?”

It is said that the isolation, the social distancing and the far-reaching effects of COVID-19 have caused many Americans to do some serious soul-searching. By all appearances, it seems that the country is in a state of deep reflection. That said, this would be an opportune time for everyone to reflect upon the state of this nation’s criminal justice system. 

I implore the people of the state of California, as well as the entire country, to take a stand against the death penalty. In California, citizens can support Assembly Constitutional Amendment (ACA) 12 to abolish the death penalty. 

Moreover, I call upon President Trump, state governors and law enforcement officials to grant more clemencies, commutations, pardons and early releases so that some of America’s 2.3 million prisoners can be saved from the risk of contracting coronavirus from their jailors.

Finally, in the name of health and safety, I submit that every prisoner in America should be provided with an N95 mask, gloves and proper cleaning supplies so that they are better suited to protect themselves from the invisible enemy called COVID-19. 

Send our brother some love and light: Timothy Young, F-23374, San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin CA 94974. And visit his website, timothyjamesyoung.com