Let me explain.
In May 2020, a rushed transfer of 122 prisoners from the California Institute for Men blasted covid-19 into San Quentin, sparking a firestorm that infected more than 2,000 of us, including me, by the end of July — and killed 28 of my incarcerated peers. Just like that, it happened. We’d been safe for months — until suddenly we weren’t.
But the pandemic lens focused sharp images of San Quentin’s rampant overcrowding on the public consciousness. And so, to combat the viral spread, the administration finally allowed many of us to live and breathe alone inside our 4-and-a-half-by-11-foot cells. For me, that happened almost exactly a year ago.
Imagine that. For the first time in my four years at San Quentin, I have been able to spread out my property a bit, stretch my legs and rest easier.
All by myself, I can reflect better on my rehabilitative efforts. I can exercise at my discretion; push-ups and squats in the 22-inch space beside my bunk became my fitness salvation. I can turn the lights on and write whenever inspiration strikes. I can boil water for tea or ramen, hoping to achieve momentary Zen.
I don’t have to inhale the smell of a cellmate’s sleeping breath or shudder when using a shared toilet and sink. With less crowding, I don’t have to shower right next to another person splashing rinse-off on me.
San Quentin locked down for covid-19 on March 18, 2020, and it lasted until May 5, 2021. Institutional lockdowns are nothing new here: Despite the sickness and death, this became another opportunity to do what incarcerated people do best. We shook it off. We strengthened our resolve, fine-tuned our focus. We held onto our sanity. We stayed alive.
“Are you all right in there?” — any chance we got, we’d stop by cells and check on each other.
Traditional prison culture — with its emphasis on selfish bravado and invincibility — faded in favor of a heightened sense of empathy and engagement. Like everyone, I was confined inside my cellblock, with no contact with other units — but within those limits, we shared information, resources and even our fears. Our small, tight-knit community came together and grew closer.
Through handwritten letters and time-restricted, prepaid collect calls, we reinforced our connections with outside friends and family. They were incredibly worried about us — and vice versa. I could hear tears of relief in my cousin’s voice when we finally spoke. Boundaries between incarcerated and non-incarcerated dissolved in the face of the common pandemic enemy.
It shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but the resilience and grace of my incarcerated community still overwhelm me. In lockdown, sanctioned rehabilitative programs were shuttered, but we still worked on becoming better people in here. We took it upon ourselves to educate, counsel and nurture one another.
I think I became a better person. My friends and neighbors in cells around me? They became better people, too.
Placing science over mistrust, 87 percent of San Quentin’s incarcerated residents have accepted vaccinations. And when you make the formal decision to choose life, your perspective on everything becomes that much clearer.
But I knew it was all too good to last. It now appears our microcosm of successful herd immunity will be used against us.
In February, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) seemed to decide it was time to return to its usual business of mass incarceration.
We don’t know their plan — they don’t tell us. But busloads of fresh human cargo began to arrive. Now new faces pop up in our units each week. Many of us again have cellmates. Any day I could get one, too. We see what’s happening.
And the overall drop in our prison population — 4,027 incarcerated here the week before the covid shutdown and now 2,666 — is not reflected in the density of our units. In my cellblock, there are 340 people crammed together in 247 cells, even though more than 650 cells are vacant in the same block — and others are even worse. Once again, we stand elbow to elbow in mold-ridden showers.
We know about the delta and mu variants. And we know there’s simply no realistic way to mitigate the spread of an airborne infection if our population is not kept to a manageable number and spaced out appropriately. If one of us catches a highly transmissible virus here, we’ll all be vulnerable — just like last time.
We’ve already seen breakthrough infections and had a new covid-19 quarantine last month. But still, CDCR buses keep coming.
Against the backdrop of the worst covid-19 had to offer, our San Quentin community stands firm — alive and well, but not without first having paid a heavy, unnecessary cost. And not without wondering why it has to go back to the stiflingly overcrowded way it was.