San Quentin COVID catastrophe


Emile DeWeaver speaking at San Quentin protest on June 28, 2020.
Photo by Paul Kuroda

The current unfolding humanitarian disaster at San Quentin is, I’m sure, not something anyone is just finding out about on July 9, 2020, but just in case you don’t know the details, here is a quick recap. The COVID-19 virus was brought in late May into San Quentin via a transfer of 122 men from California Institute for Men in Chino where the outbreak was raging. Until that time, SQ had been completely COVID-free. (This transfer has been called “The worst prison health screw-up in state history” by Assemblyman Marc Levine.) Within one month, more than 1/3 or possibly 1/2 of the population tested positive, and as of today at least 7 if not more have died (accurate numbers are difficult to obtain). Also, on June 8, another transfer occurred out of SQ, bringing the virus to other prisons where there had been little or no incidence of the virus. The deadly negligence and “reckless indifference” (Judge Tigar’s phrase) of the transfers, the exploding cases of coronavirus and lack of proper care for people once they have tested positive, has created a situation at San Quentin that is an unimaginable nightmare in which people are being sent to solitary confinement for being sick, people testing negative are sharing a cell with people testing positive, people are locked down for 23 or 24 hours a day without access to phone calls or basic hygiene necessities or decent food, many of those who are sick are put in cells which have not been cleaned and don’t have electricity so that they have no means of making a cup of tea or soup or getting the news or even just watching or listening to something to pass the time. These are just a few of the naked facts of the situation inside. James King, in the press conference I watched today, said that a UCSF doctor called the situation at SQ “the Chernobyl of COVID.” James said that he considered it to be the “Hurricane Katrina of COVID,” and that San Quentin was the Louisiana Superdome, only with no cameras to show to the world what it’s like inside.

For us San Quentin Prison Arts Project teachers, it’s taken weeks to jump through all the hoops necessary to start sending packets with lessons and reading material in. So far I have been able to send in one packet. I have tried to keep close tabs on the news and I know that for sure Juan Haines and Rahsaan Thomas from the class have tested positive, and I’m sure there are more. Juan has managed to get some news out about his situation. His reports have been featured on Democracy Now and other news sources.

Because a lot of people ask me what they can do, I am starting to create a very brief resource sheet, which I will continue to update as I go along. This is a non-comprehensive list, just a few things thrown together. Please feel free to let me know of glaring omissions, or great resources that should be included.

Please keep the pressure on Newsom and others (see resource sheet) and please keep praying for the men as they endure this horrific situation. The fact that this is happening in the midst of the George Floyd protests and worldwide outrage over the inhumane treatment of people of color is an unbearable irony.

I’m going to open up this space for former students to post about the current situation. I’m hoping you’ll see some posts coming from here in the very near future.

About Brothers In Pen

Brothers in Pen is the collective name of the Wednesday Night Creative Writing Class at San Quentin State Prison facilitated by Zoe Mullery.
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