Rattling the Bars: San Quentin Prison is a COVID deathtrap

In 2020, San Quentin State Prison in California had some of the worst rates of COVID-19 infection in the nation. At least 23 people died from COVID-19 after contracting it at the prison. Prisons, jails, and detention centers across the US proved similarly vulnerable to the pandemic, which easily spread among incarcerated populations and into surrounding communities due to the already abhorrent health, sanitation, and human rights conditions of such facilities. Two years later, COVID-19 remains a challenge for San Quentin and California officials. While prisoners are tested regularly multiple times a week, guards and other prison staff are exempted from testing. Sanitation within the overcrowded prison remains atrocious, and prisoners who are exposed to COVID-19 are often quarantined in solitary confinement units. Although California has a more rigorous COVID-19 policy than much of the nation, the state’s inability to protect prisoners is a reflection of the fundamental violence of the mass incarceration system. Incarcerated journalist Juan Moreno Haines calls in to Rattling the Bars from San Quentin prison with his colleague, journalist Katie Rose Quandt, to discuss COVID-19 policies at the prison, how the ongoing pandemic has made life considerably worse for prisoners, and why freeing people could be a better solution than the band-aid solutions California has attempted thus far.

Juan Moreno Haines is an award-winning incarcerated journalist and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the editor of the San Quentin News.

Katie Rose Quandt is a freelance journalist who writes about criminal justice, incarceration, and inequality. She is a senior editor at the Prison Policy Initiative, and a writer and editor at Solitary Watch.

Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Transcript

Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-hosting with Eddie Conway. And as I do every show, I try to update you on the progress Eddie Conway is making; Eddie Conway is recovering, Eddie Conway is getting his strength back, and hopefully, at some point in time, Eddie Conway will return to Rattling the Bars and the network that he loved the most.

Today we have a show on COVID, but more importantly, we have a show on COVID as it exists in the California prison system, specifically San Quentin. I’m dubbing this show as, “Why are We Having this Conversation?” And as we go into the interviews, you’ll understand why I’m dubbing it, “Why are We Having this Conversation? Today I’m joined by Katie Rose Quandt, and Katie Rose Quandt is a reporter from California. Katie, introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself and your co-reporter.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah, thanks so much for having me on the show. My name’s Katie Rose Quandt. I’m a journalist who often writes about criminal justice for various publications, and I often write about conditions in jails and prisons. And so for this story, I co-reported… This story was in Type Investigations and The American Prospect, and I co-reported it with Juan Moreno Haines. Juan is a journalist incarcerated in San Quentin. He’s written and edited for the San Quentin News for many years. The two of us work together on this. We’re both correspondents for Solitary Watch, a small newsroom that writes about solitary confinement, and so we’ve started working together on a few projects. We co-reported this story, which is about the use of the Adjustment Center for holding people for medical isolation and quarantine in San Quentin State Prison.

Mansa Musa:  And we’re going to play… We had sent Juan some questions to answer, relative to what’s going on in San Quentin, and more importantly, what’s going on in the Adjustment Center. At this time, we’re going to play that, and then we’ll come back and talk about that and other things.

Juan Moreno Haines:  All right.

Katie Rose Quandt:  All right, Juan, what are the California Department of Corrections regulations on COVID?

Juan Moreno Haines:  The regulations vary. They’re constantly changing. The latest, it’s not a regulation, but what happens is the headquarters in Sacramento would issue a memorandum or a directive about COVID. The last directive came out July 7, and it was called The Road Map to Reopening. What it did was it set guidelines on the mask requirements, test requirements, and the procedure in which programming is to reopen in San Quentin and state prisons. And then on Sept. 14, the department issued a memorandum called Test to Program, which basically, the basic requirements of the Test to Program memorandum says each warden and medical are to get together in accordance to their staff and medical department and figure out a procedure –

Automated Voice:  You have 60 seconds remaining.

Juan Moreno Haines:  …In which incarcerated people can test to go to their programs. I’m going to call you right back.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Okay, sounds good.

Automated Voice:  Using Global Tel Link.

Juan Moreno Haines:  Okay, okay, so in describing the Sept. 14 Test to Program memorandum that was issued by headquarters in Sacramento, the directive asks the wardens and medical department to get together to test incarcerated folks so they can get to their programs. The testing protocol is that if the person wants to program and it’s during a quarantine, which we’re currently under at San Quentin, the person tests the first day of the quarantine, the third day of the quarantine, the fifth day of the quarantine, and the seventh day of the quarantine. Then that person is cleared to go to their particular program, whether that might be a self-help group, work, or whatever program that the incarcerated person is attempting to abide by.

Now, how is that working at San Quentin? It’s literally a work in progress, because in order for the Testing to Program protocol to work, there has to be enough nurses, enough tests, enough evaluation for that. The big hiccup here at San Quentin right now is simply there’s too many people and not enough nurses. And so it’s plain and simple why we’re not implementing this during a quarantine Testing to Program procedure at San Quentin.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Therefore, people who are supposed to be enrolled in programs, are they going to programs without the testing, or are they just not able to participate until –

Juan Moreno Haines:  I’ll use myself as an example. I’ve tested not one, three, five, seven, I’ve tested every day for three days, and I can’t go to my program, because the way that they’re implementing it at San Quentin, they are going by a list turned in by program supervisors to the warden, and they are going to someone up top. Then, when I go to test, to the nurse’s station, they literally write me in that I tested to go to work, but when I go to work, they don’t have the San Quentin News down as one of the programs that are in the Test to Program policy. It’s a work in progress. And so until the newsroom or the media department or education is listed as one of those programs that are in the Test to Program policy, I’m stuck not going to work.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Wow. And then you also mentioned that San Quentin’s currently under quarantine. How does that work?

Juan Moreno Haines:  The way that works is that three mainline housing units that have failed, which is North Block, where I’m housed, West Block, and South Block, are separated in any type of programming. Currently, North Block and West Block are on quarantine. Badger is not on quarantine, and so the incarcerated folks from each of these housing units can’t mix anywhere in the institution. That means that since Badger’s not on quarantine, they have a regular program. They’re going to all their programs. North Block and West Block can’t mix with them until the Test to Program implementation is fully in place. You see?

Katie Rose Quandt:  Okay, yeah.

Juan Moreno Haines:  Even though we’re quarantined, if we test and we test negative for COVID-19, we can go to programs. And so I’m testing, but I’m not going to program because the whole thing isn’t in place right now. It’s just a work in progress.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah, okay. Yeah, that makes sense. And then as far as the Adjustment Center, are the cells in the Adjustment Center regularly cleaned and sprayed with cleaning agents?

Juan Moreno Haines:  Everyone that I interviewed said no. I’ve interviewed literally dozens and dozens… Almost everyone that I’ve interviewed has the same story. The cells are filthy, not cleaned, they ask for cleaning supplies, they don’t get it. They complain about it, then they’re given minimal cleaning supplies once. And one of the first things that guys do when they get in one of those cells is they literally have to take one of their T-shirts and a bar of soap, soap it up, and just start scrubbing the place down.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah. And what about the showers and other public areas on the tier?

Juan Moreno Haines:  Yeah, I have had people tell me that they can see the cleaning supplies, but they’re never cleaned. They don’t allow the incarcerated people to… The incarcerated people would literally come out of their cells and clean this place up, but they’re not allowed to do that.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Are the staff at San Quentin regularly tested for COVID?

Juan Moreno Haines:  No. There was a lawsuit that ultimately got settled, and staff and COs, they don’t have to test. They don’t have to take COVID tests, they don’t have to get vaccinated, anything.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Wow. Are incarcerated people given masks and hand sanitizer regularly?

Juan Moreno Haines:  Yes, yes. We’re given an endless supply of surgical N95s. Disinfectant is passed out on a regular basis and it’s readily available.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Have the governor and other elected officials been made aware of the conditions at San Quentin?

Juan Moreno Haines:  I know that an organization called Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Initiate Justice continually goes to the governor about the conditions, specifically at San Quentin. And the reason why I know that they do this is because the leadership of these two organizations are formerly incarcerated people that we call on a regular basis. I don’t have any direct knowledge of that, but the people that I talk to in these advocacy organizations that are run by formerly incarcerated folks, definitely part of their job is to go to Sacramento to make lawmakers aware of conditions inside of this prison.

Automated Voice:  This call and your telephone number will be monitored and recorded.

Katie Rose Quandt:  And presumably they also would’ve been aware of that pretty major lawsuit, I would imagine?

Juan Moreno Haines:  Absolutely, absolutely, yeah.

Katie Rose Quandt:  To your knowledge, has anyone died of COVID within the Adjustment Center or San Quentin?

Juan Moreno Haines:  The best place where that information is available is this organization called Mourning Our Losses. They monitor deaths in California prisons. Sometimes the reports could be COVID-related, but I don’t have any specific information on that. I would get that information from Mourning Our Losses. It’s a national organization that tracks prison deaths.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah, and we do know that people have died of COVID in San Quentin. That’s been pretty widely reported.

Juan Moreno Haines:  Oh –

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah.

Juan Moreno Haines:  Oh, absolutely. The official number of 28 and one correctional sergeant has been heavily reported. However, during the COVID outbreak, that number of people who have died in San Quentin is well into 30, 40 people. We just don’t know how COVID factored into those particular deaths.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah, that makes sense. What else would you want people to know about what people in San Quentin are being subjected to throughout the COVID Pandemic?

Juan Moreno Haines:  For me, I want to [inaudible] understand it’s not COVID. COVID is just showing a larger problem that mass incarceration, packing people in tiny spaces, has. COVID is just exposing the overcrowding effects of incarceration. And in San Quentin, a lot of these problems could be solved simply by alleviating overcrowding. That’s what the problem is. It’s not these infectious diseases. Currently, this quarantine that we’re on, it’s unsure even if it’s COVID, because the people who are getting sick are losing their voice. Literally losing their voice. It’s like whooping cough. We don’t really know fully if this current infectious disease that’s going around is COVID or some other thing. We’re going right into the flu season and one of the things we’re doing at the media center is we’re really trying to advise people to get the flu shot.

The vaccination rates for flu and COVID in San Quentin are extremely high,, because in the media department we encourage the incarcerated population to save our own lives by getting these vaccinations. And so when you do a comparative analysis of the folks inside San Quentin on vaccination rates, it far exceeds anything out in the free world, yet these infectious diseases rage inside here. And so that tells us that we’re overcrowded. It’s simple. It’s very simple. We’re overcrowded. Even though people aren’t dying, people are getting sick and being psychologically impacted by these disruptions in regular, daily life.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah, and it kind of makes sense that illness can spread so easily, because we wrote about people being held in solitary confinement during their quarantines in the Adjustment Center, but the regular day-to-day housing, can you talk about what that’s like? What the size of the cells are like, whether the people are double celled in the regular housing units?

Juan Moreno Haines:  The cells at San Quentin are approximately four by 10 feet. That’s about the size of a parking space. Two people are assigned to each cell. And so inside these small cells, I’m 5-foot-3 and I could touch the walls, the width of the walls. The palms of my hand can touch the walls in these cells. And so inside of these cells, there’s two, six-cubic feet lockers, a toilet, and a sink, and a bunk bed. And so there’s little room for anything else. Two people can’t stand in this cell at the same time, and so it’s extremely crowded in there. And to mitigate that, what prison officials try to do is allow people to be out of the cells as much as possible and go to programs.

We can exist like that, it’s okay, but when we go to quarantine and when we can’t get to our programs or to the yard or outside of the cell on a regular basis and we’re confined to these tiny spaces where we are literally stuck in place, and so that’s extremely stressful to a person who is older, doing their best to get self-help or drug treatment or education to show the board, hey, I’m doing something to… I’m doing the right thing to get out of here. And so we resort to doing correspondence courses. We have meetings on the yard, when available, about continuing our rehabilitation. But overall, it’s stressful.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah.

Automated Voice:  This call and your telephone number will be monitored and recorded.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah. Is there anything else you want to throw in there while I’m still recording?

Juan Moreno Haines:  No, we’ve pretty much covered all the things that are going on.

Mansa Musa:  All right, Katie, we heard Juan offer an overview of, one, the policies and procedures as they relate to COVID. But let me do a backdrop on this real quick. In 2020, California prisons, specifically San Quentin, was cited as having the worst outbreak of COVID in the nation. In 2021, they were fined for when they had a tour and it was seen that the abuses were continuing. I think over 23 people died. Both prisoners and the guards had got COVID, and all this was a result of them using San Quentin in particular to warehouse people that had COVID. Now we’re looking at 2022, and they’re using the Adjustment Center as the quarantine place for men that are incarcerated in the California prison system, to isolate them and use it as a quarantine.

Now, in Juan’s interview, Juan made certain observations about the conditions, the fact that they’re not cleaning the cells. Ot’s the Adjustment Center, and anyone that’s familiar with the California Prison System, the Adjustment Center in California prison is a security housing unit where no prisoner is allowed out to do any of their sanitation. You are locked in 24-7. You might come out for a shower and you might come out for a [inaudible]. Overall, you’re confined to the cell and you’re not allowed out to help clean up or anything. Talk about why, at this junction, 2022, are we having this conversation about COVID and the outbreak of COVID and utilizing San Quentin Adjustment Center for quarantine.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah, even though this judge ruled that the Constitutional rights of the people in San Quentin had been violated, about a year ago that judge said, but now we have vaccines, so we don’t need to make any changes. He didn’t order any changes in San Quentin because the hope would be that vaccines would solve all the problems. And even though most people in San Quentin have gotten vaccinated, now, a year later, we know vaccines are an important tool in fighting COVID, but it doesn’t completely stop the spread, especially in an overcrowded prison. That’s why we’re still talking about this now. On the outside, they’ve lifted mask mandates and people are moving about and acting like COVID’s over, but in a prison you cannot escape COVID. Diseases just spread so easily in places like this. Now, what that means for incarcerated people is that their experience of being in that prison is just worse than it ever was before COVID, and this is the new normal.

There’s no end in sight for these restrictive policies, for these constant lockdowns. And in the case of this story, for people, at any given time, someone might get sick or get exposed, and they’re going to be sent right to the Adjustment Center. Which is, as you said, this notorious unit. For decades, it was the worst death row unit in the state. Now, that’s where people are being sent for getting sick. And before COVID, that never would’ve happened to someone. People could move about the prison, and now at any moment they could find out that they’re getting sent to this terrible, dirty, solitary confinement unit just because they were exposed to COVID. Through our reporting and talking to people, we don’t really see an end in sight for this. I think that’s why it’s so important to keep talking in 2022.

Mansa Musa:  Okay, and we can pick right up on that, because like you said, that they’re using this Adjustment Center. And Juan, he made the observation that, okay, you have, allegedly, policies and procedures in place. You have, allegedly, a system where I’m put on… To give our audience some education, I’m identified as having COVID, I’m put in quarantine. While I’m in quarantine, Juan made the observation that while I’m in quarantine, once I’ve been tested and I’m no longer negative, in theory, I’m to be let out. He uses the term more or less to be put back in the main population, or allowed to continue to make progress and possibly make progress towards getting out of prison altogether.

He made the observation that once I’m tested negative, in theory I’m supposed to be released. But because of the lack of attention to providing more nurses, the lack of attention to having a communication between all the parties that be, the nurse might say, oh, you’re now negative and you can be released from quarantine, but I’m not released from quarantine. From your story, from your investigation and Juan’s observation, why are we having this problem with this lack of… This intransigent thinking on the part of, okay, you got me locked down. I tested negative. Why can’t I get out? Why are we having this problem?

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah, I think Juan was talking about something slightly different, which was that they’re trying to implement ways to let people… He’s in general population, but they keep putting these quarantines or lockdowns on the whole unit when caseloads are high. They’re supposed to be implementing this new policy, he was saying, to let people go to their programming and their jobs and their activities if they can test negative. Because he was saying, it sounded like, logistically, he’ll get the test, but then it hasn’t been processed correctly and when he shows up, he’s not allowed in. And I think we found some similar things in the Adjustment Center. We talked to people who had been held in the unit at various points over the last couple years, and people had been there for all different lengths of time.

They do say on paper, I think, that the isolation should be about 14 days, but there were people who told us that they were there longer than that. There were people that told us they tested negative three times before they got out. It just seems to speak to some disorganization to me, and not prioritizing the fact that people are going to be traumatized in this unit and they should not be keeping people in isolation, in quarantine, who have tested positive. That doesn’t seem to maybe have been the priority of keeping track of that and getting people out as soon as possible.

Mansa Musa:  And that’s a good point that you’re making about people being traumatized, because in y’all reporting, if I’m not mistaken, in the Adjustment Center, everybody is subjected to being isolated, even the guards. The guards are locked in the area and they don’t have the freedom of movement like other guards or correctional officers throughout San Quentin. They’re confined primarily to this unit. Until, I guess, their shift change, or they go on their lunch break, do they get the liberty to move about.

But then too, in the Adjustment Center, now remember, this Adjustment Center came into existence when George Jackson was in prison. It came into existence as a result of Soledad, becoming the number one security housing unit for housing what they considered prisoners that could not be controlled. It was primarily used for leaving you there and leaving you there indefinitely. Now, they’re taking people there and utilizing it for quarantine. How do a person get off?

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah, I think that they have policies that should be followed, that after… Depending on whether someone’s there because they actually tested positive or whether they were exposed, I think it should be either a negative test or 14 days. But like I said, some people reported having different experiences from that.

But I think what you were pointing out is really important, that this unit has a long history of being this most intense isolated unit, and also that it’s so intense and locked down that, as you said, guards can’t come and go off of the unit. And I think the thing that struck us as we were reporting was that these policies haven’t changed at all now that the unit’s being used for something different. This isn’t being used as a death row unit anymore. It’s not being used as an Ad Seg unit, it’s being used as a quarantine unit, so it doesn’t seem to really make sense that they’re still keeping it in such an intense lockdown.

People who are quarantining there, these people are in general population. They’re used to walking around the prison. But now, if they’re in this unit, they want to go take a shower down the tier on the rare… Every few days when it’s allowed, they have to stick their hands through the food slot, get handcuffed, be escorted, and none of these people have any sort of status that would require this kind of security. Person after person just told Juan and me that they felt like they were being punished instead of going there for sickness.

Mansa Musa:  And you know what? I did 48 years in prison prior to getting out. I’ve been in super max, I stayed on Adjustment Center, I’ve been on Admin Seg, and everything you described is an Admin Seg, punitive narrative. And the problem I’m having – And maybe you can see was this addressed, or did y’all try to get somebody addressed – The problem I’m having is I’m not being punished because I committed a disciplinary act, I’m being quarantined because I have a medical situation. So why am I not being allowed to come out and clean and come out and act in a normal fashion? Because if I’m in a hospital and I’m quarantined, I’m at least going to have the ability to walk around the ward. I’m at least going to have the ability to clean up in my area. I’m at least going to have the ability to interact, to have a minder come over or a social interaction. Why are they not allowing… Why are they so restrictive on it? That’s my question.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah, I think that’s one of the things that so many people told us, because they were so frustrated and scared when they were put in this cell. You know that the person before you probably had COVID, and just knowing that it’s not clean, people would ask repeatedly for access to cleaning supplies and maybe get a little bit. And then we also found some of the people that we talked to said that the shared showers on the tier, this unit, they don’t have the incarcerated workers come and clean the way that might be someone’s job elsewhere in the prison. Once again, that’s a security thing when this was this intense death row unit. They didn’t have incarcerated workers come clean, and so since they’re still keeping those policies, I think it’s just up to staff to clean. And from what people told us, that just isn’t happening.

Mansa Musa:  Right, and I know from experience that when you have these kind of environments, staff, in their mind, that’s above their pay grade to come down and mop a floor, to come down and have you come out your cell and go in there and clean your cell, because routinely, every institution, every prison in the United States of America, have a mechanism where cell cleaning is something that prisoners do. Let’s talk about what the general attitude is in the prison population, because I’ve seen where I think I read or when Juan talked about in his interview, say if a person coughs and you’re around the wrong people, they might turn around and say, oh yeah, put them in quarantine.

And I know even in society at the height of COVID, when somebody was coughing, everybody looked at them and they’re like, what’s going on with you? And you could almost see what they’re thinking. Talk about that. Talk about the act from what Juan was talking about how is the morality of the prison population? Because on any given day, your cell buddy could have COVID. You could have tested negative from here to next year, but because you were in the cell with them, you’re going on Adjustment.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah, and that’s one of the things where it’s hard to keep up with what the current policy is. I think it’s always going to be up to some discretion of staff who happen to maybe hear someone cough. But yeah, we definitely talked to at least one person who said he was sent to the Adjustment Center and he had no idea why, and he didn’t feel sick. He pieced together later that a few other people who had been sent there had all visited the dentist around the same time. He thought maybe he got it at the dentist. And I think someone else was sent to the Adjustment Center because he had been seen by a nurse who it turned out she had COVID. You’re always at risk of being sent there.

That’s another thing that people said, is that it becomes a big deterrent. If you’re trying to stop the spread of COVID, you want people to come forward when they say they are feeling sick. But if you know that the first thing that’s going to happen is you’re going to get sent down to the Adjustment Center, that’s obviously going to make people less incentivized to come forward and say that they feel sick, because they’re going to be in this traumatizing, solitary confinement unit for two weeks. It’s really not helping stop the spread by basically punishing people for coming forward and saying they feel sick.

Mansa Musa:  And then talk about the guards. Juan made the observation that the prison guards had sued so they wouldn’t have to be tested for COVID, so they wouldn’t have to randomly take the test. But yet, they’re experiencing getting COVID, and it’s not because they’re working in the prison environment, but it just might be they contracted it in society and brought it in. Talk about their attitude. Why are they so intransigent about wanting to see this resolved in a more healthy and humane manner?

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah, I really don’t know. Like you said, it doesn’t really make sense, because people who are working in the prison, too, it’s in their interest as well to stop the spread and to not have COVID be rampant inside the facility that they work in. I think it’s just person-to-person, there definitely seems to have been, among the correctional union in California, a big push to get the governor to make exceptions for them, as opposed to other state employees, to not have to get the vaccine and things like that.

I remember there was one person who had testified in that class-action lawsuit. I don’t think this actually is in our story, but he talked about how he went to the Adjustment Center after coming back from a medical appointment, because that’s another reason you might go. If you just come back from a medical appointment or a court appointment or something, you could potentially have COVID, so you might get quarantined in the Adjustment Center. And he said when he was there, he was being locked away in the cell, but the officers who had been guarding his hospital room were just… They had no –

Mansa Musa:  Yeah, right, right, right.

Katie Rose Quandt:  It’s just, obviously it’s a double standard to the way people are treated.

Mansa Musa:  And Juan talked about the fact that the powers that be, the governor and state representatives, are aware of what’s going on, yet they haven’t taken any decisive action in terms of mandating certain behavior. Why do you think that is?

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah, it’s so true, because between… There was an Inspector General report that outlined so many of the early mistakes CDCR made in San Quentin. Like I said, there was this big class action lawsuit, with a ruling really in favor of the plaintiffs. Clearly, anyone who’s paying attention, any higher ups in California, know that things have been terrible in San Quentin, but there just doesn’t seem to be any desire to tell CDCR what to do. There was actually just a – I’m sure you might have seen this, there was just this bill that made it through Congress in California, called the Mandela Act, that would’ve drastically limited solitary confinement in California prisons and jails, and Governor Newsom vetoed it. When he vetoed it, he said…

And that bill wouldn’t really have applied as much to places like the Adjustment Center, but it’s a similar concept. It’s the use of solitary confinement in these prisons. And when he vetoed it, he said that he would prefer CDCR to make their own policies or something like that. I think pushing it off back onto the Department of Corrections, for them to make their own policies seems to be the policy among the higher ups in the state.

Mansa Musa:  Right. And CDCR is the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation. Am I correct?

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yes, yeah.

Mansa Musa:  And then Juan talked about – And maybe you can talk a little bit about this as well – And I like this observation that he made, he said, the problem is not COVID, which is understandable. He said, the problem is the overcrowding of the prison which creates the environment for the mutation of COVID. Talk about the overcrowding in California prisons, if you have the insight on that.

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah, I do. San Quentin is at over 100% capacity, and so is the overall CDCR. California State Prisons as a whole are over 100% capacity, which means they’re overcrowded. And even during COVID or during any illness outbreaks, 100% isn’t good enough anyway. Think about at the height of COVID, all sorts of places, malls and schools, implemented 20% or 40% capacity rules. Restaurants.

So thinking about this prison being over 100%, and that’s why I asked Juan to talk a little bit more about what the general housing is like in San Quentin, because we talked a lot about these isolating conditions inside the Adjustment Center, but on the other side of the coin, in the general population units, people are two to a very small cell. As Juan was saying, there’s no way to stop the spread of illness. And he’s actually been reporting about this for a long time. He wrote a story before COVID hit the United States about how the flu was spreading so easily through San Quentin, and when people got the flu, they would go to solitary confinement as an isolation.

There’s just disease after disease, and yeah, COVID has really exposed this, but there’s so many problems with having over 100% capacity in a prison. There’s not enough programming, there’s not enough access to rehabilitation and recreation, and that’s not the way that a prison should be operating, of course. And so I think COVID has really shown the dangers of having people so tightly packed like this. And the refusal to reconsider whether these people should be in prison. So many people could go home, and they’re just still locked away in San Quentin, exposed to these diseases.

Mansa Musa:  And we reported on, earlier, about in Susanville, how they closed down and they have the decarceration taking place, and how the community in small, rural America protested. But the reality is that, as you mentioned, and that’s why I made the observation, that the prison overcrowding is contributing to unhealthy and unsafe and unsanitized conditions. It’s not the disease. Like I told you, I was in an environment, and then when the flu came through – Me and a guy were talking about this earlier today – When the flu came through, everybody was looking for some kind of home remedy. Onions, garlic, sweating it out, but the fact that once it came into the environment, it was inevitable that you were going to get it, and you went into a prevention mode.

But now, with this type of disease and the attitude of the administration that is not to lock them up and throw away the key, it’s to isolate them and ignore them or isolate them and they die, so be it. But on the front end of it you’re creating an environment where it’s becoming like a Petri dish for creating the spread of it or the mutation of it. Katie, you got the last word on this. What do you want our audience to take away from this report?

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah, well I think one important thing is, obviously, on the inside and outside, when someone has COVID, we all know that it’s important to stay home if you have COVID and not spread it. The basic idea of trying to quarantine, isolate people, is a sound one. But there’s been a lot of reports out by public health people who have pointed out that just because you’re trying to keep people separate from the rest of the prison population while they have a disease, that does not mean they need to be living in these terrible conditions. It does not need to be that you’re locked in a cell and you go to outdoor rec in this tiny little cage and there’s no windows in these cells. One person told Juan that he would just look out the little tiny window into the hallway and watch spiders because he was so lonely and isolated.

And that’s traumatizing. People who have spent time in solitary confinement, even short periods of time, will tell us that it’s traumatizing, it’s damaging to their health. I just think that this is not the way to be handling illness in prisons. This isn’t just a San Quentin problem. This is something that prisons around the country are doing. The fact that COVID has swept through the nation has really increased people’s experiences in solitary confinement and isolation. And so this does not need to be the way that a prison treats people who are sick or isolates people away from the general population.

Mansa Musa:  There you have it, the real news. Instead of trying to find ways to eliminate the problem, the health issue, and release people – That’s a real reality. You could cut people’s time, you could release them. As opposed to that, you isolate them, you quarantine them, and then you forget them. You have people that’s traumatized as a result of being subjected to long periods of isolation in solitary confinement. You create an environment in the general population where people that are actually sick would refuse to get some medical attention for fear of being quarantined.

All this on the heels of you being cited numerous times for abusing human rights. This is a human rights issue. This is not a California, this is a human rights issue. And as Juan said, it’s not COVID, it’s overcrowding, and it’s the intransigent attitude and the inhumanity of the California prison system, the prison-industrial complex, mass incarceration.

Thank you, Katie. Thank you very much for this enlightening conversation. We ask, do you want to offer any information that you would pass out that our viewers might… Where can they go and find more about, or what they can do to aid the brothers in the California prison system?

Katie Rose Quandt:  Yeah, well, I would definitely recommend reading our article on Type Investigations and in The American Prospect. I recommend following along with Solitary Watch, which reports on stories like this. And you can also try to read some more of Juan’s reporting at the San Quentin News. They publish their articles online as well. I think that those would be some good ways to try to follow what’s going on in there and hear the voices from writers like Juan.

Mansa Musa:  Yeah, and we ask that you give Juan our regards. We really appreciate his boldness, in terms of educating the public on the reality of what’s going on in prison. When we think about San Quentin, we think about a tumultuous period in the ’70s where they were literally killing people. Now, they’re ignoring people to death and they’re being so abusive in terms of the treatment and mistreatment that it’s deja vu all over again. Thank you very much. There you have it, the real news. Thank you very much, Katie.

And we ask that all our listeners continue and viewers continue to support The Real News. We’re actually the real news, as you can see. We’re really reporting about real events, such as prisoners being punished for being sick. We report real news about everything going on in society. We ask that you continue to support The Real News and Rattling the Bars. Thank you. On behalf of Eddie Conway and myself, have a great day.

Mansa Musa

Mansa Musa, also known as Charles Hopkins, is a 70-year-old social activist and former Black Panther. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.