San Quentin prisoners go on hunger strike amid massive COVID-19 outbreak

San Quentin State Prison

by Kira Lerner, The Appeal

About 20 people in the prison’s Badger section have been on hunger strike for the past few days, three people incarcerated there say.

July 1, 2020 – As the novel coronavirus spreads rapidly through California’s San Quentin State Prison, around 20 prisoners have launched a hunger strike to protest inhumane conditions inside, three men incarcerated in the facility said.

The hunger strike began on Monday, according to the men, who are incarcerated in the prison’s Badger unit. As of Wednesday, 1,135 prisoners – almost a third of San Quentin’s incarcerated population – have active COVID-19 infections. At least one prisoner has died

Two sources, who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation, said that despite the outbreak, people in Badger section are still locked up in small cells with other people, making it impossible to social distance.

Juan Moreno Haines, an incarcerated journalist and regular contributor to The Appeal who has reported on the conditions prisoners are facing from inside San Quentin, also confirmed the information from the other two sources. Additionally, Haines said that he has tested positive for COVID-19.

“[T]he cells are filthy and we are not being given cleaner to maintain them,” one source told The Appeal. “Some of us are being housed together when the whole thing is to keep us six feet away from each other.” 

The prison is also serving the men cold, “inadequate” food, one of the men said. The unit doesn’t have electrical power in the cells, so they are unable to use TVs, radios or fans, he said.

“Guys are having mental issues and they are not being addressed,” the source said. “The staff are literally waiting for us to fall out.”

All three men pleaded for information about the prison’s conditions to be widely reported. 

“They’re putting their bodies out there to show that if the disease itself and the way it’s spreading so quickly, if that doesn’t show this is a human rights issue, then maybe them sacrificing their bodies will.”

“It’s bad, it’s bad! Please get the word out,” one of them said.

James King, a state campaigner for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights who was incarcerated in San Quentin until December, said the prisoners are doing everything they can to raise awareness about the conditions in the prison.

“It feels unbearable and they want help,” he said. “They’re putting their bodies out there to show that if the disease itself and the way it’s spreading so quickly, if that doesn’t show this is a human rights issue, then maybe them sacrificing their bodies will.”

While the hunger strikers are only in Badger section so far, the virus has spread throughout the prison. A man incarcerated in San Quentin’s West Block housing unit, who also did not want to be named out of concern for his safety, told The Appeal that prison staff are doing little to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

“Over half of the building is sick,” he said. “They have nowhere to move sick people, so literally if your cellmate gets COVID, if he turns out to be positive, you’re just stuck in a cell with him. … It’s terrifying. They’re making very little effort to separate us from people who are positive.”

While he has tested negative, he said, many of his neighbors have tested positive. He said that when he used the shower on Tuesday, the people around him were discussing their symptoms. 

“I hear the two dudes on my left talking about how sick they are,” he said. “They’re talking to each other like, ‘Yeah, man. I’ve been having the chills, man. My body is super sore.’”

He said he tried to face the other direction, but the three men to his other side also said they were sick.

“I’m holding my breath in the shower,” he said. “The buildings are notoriously poorly ventilated. I’m literally standing in a crowd of sick men in like a sauna, and this disease is communicated through droplets. And I’m terrified.”

He said that some prisoners are still being forced to report for work in the kitchen. “They’re literally saying, if you don’t go to work, you will receive a 115, which is disciplinary, which means more time on your sentence.”

A spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said it is taking measures to mitigate the outbreak, including expedited release for some prisoners with 180 days or less left of their sentence, as well as some prisoners at high risk for complications from COVID-19. “We understand and share the concern of COVID-19 cases in the state’s prisons and are implementing multiple strategies to control the spread of the virus to protect all those who live and work in our state prisons.”

But the man in West Block said that he’s not seeing any meaningful steps being taken to prevent transmission. “The measures being taken to isolate COVID? There are no measures. Nothing adequate. Not at all.”

No prisoners at San Quentin had tested positive for COVID-19 until late May, when 121 people were transferred to the prison from the California Institution for Men, the site of the deadliest outbreak in the California prison system. In a June hearing, a federal judge called the transfer a “significant failure of policy and planning.” 

Calls are growing to release people incarcerated at San Quentin. In a June 13 report from UCSF’s Amend Center and UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, epidemiologists and health policy experts warned of dire consequences if more people aren’t released. 

“The combination of San Quentin’s antiquated facilities and severe overcrowding places the prison at high risk of significant COVID-19-related morbidity and mortality unless the population is quickly reduced by 50 percent or more,” the authors wrote.

“Failure to meet these urgent needs will have dire implications for the health of incarcerated people at San Quentin, correctional staff and the healthcare capacity of Bay Area hospitals.”

The virus was bound to spread rapidly in the overcrowded prison, Haines said.

“There’s just too many people in prison, period,” he said, pointing to North Block as an example, which is designed to hold 414 people, but currently houses more than 700.

“And there’s people that have been in prison for 10, 15, 20, 30 years, in their 60s and 70s, that have aged out of crime long ago,” he said, “yet they’re still playing these political games with these guys and not releasing them.”

This story has been updated with additional accounts from people inside San Quentin. Kira Lerner, a staff reporter with The Appeal based in Washington, D.C., can be reached at @kira_lerner. She is currently a Lipman Fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Questions and comments may be sent to info@freedomarchives.org. This story first appeared at https://theappeal.org/san-quentin-hunger-strike-coronavirus-outbreak-california-prison/.