Rahsaan “New York” Thomas is a contributing writer for The Marshall Project and San Quentin News who is currently incarcerated and has a legal campaign seeking help to secure his freedom at Bring Rahsaan Home. He wrote this account of conditions at San Quentin in late February.
Today I received a copy of a report prepared by the Inspector General of California on how San Quentin handled the Coronavirus outbreak. Inspector General Roy W. Wesley hammered San Quentin and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for transferring infected incarcerated people to other prisons and for how CDCR treats us for being sick.
I experienced the Coronavirus report firsthand after 122 men were transferred from Chino State Prison to San Quentin without being tested for COVID-19 within two weeks of getting on the bus. Once at San Quentin, these men were “quarantined” in open-air cells with bars in Badger section along with other incarcerated people. Eventually, 177 out of 321 men in Badger contracted the virus, according to the report. The virus spread through the prison infecting over 2,237 incarcerated people and 277 staff members.
Things have settled down at San Quentin since the virus did its worst in July and August. Basically, most of the population has been “vaccinated” through surviving COVID-19.
Ron nearly died, but after weeks on a respirator, he returned to North Block and landed in a different cell on a different tier. I hope Ron sees a parole board before that new COVID strain from South Africa hits the California prison system. Moderna vaccinations started in January at San Quentin, but there are fears that the vaccines will not protect against the new variants of the virus.
During the San Quentin outbreak, COVID-19 killed 28 incarcerated people and one staff member. I hope to be free before COVID mutations strike San Quentin, but hope doesn’t have a scheduled parole date for most of us. I’ve only heard of five men serving life sentences at San Quentin getting released early due to COVID-19. Lately, I don’t hear names being called for parole anymore.
The population at San Quentin has dropped because some people have gone home; many others were transferred or moved to different sections of the prison. North Block, where I am housed, is still too crowded for social distancing. Meanwhile, I heard other parts of the prison have dozens of empty cells.San Quentin still hasn’t heeded the medical experts’ warning that the population needs to be reduced by 50 percent to control outbreaks. In September the population total in North Block hit nearly 200 percent of design capacity. Today, it’s around 130 percent. In order to maintain adequate social distancing of six feet, I think it probably needs to be at around 60 percent.
A court battle is on about the overcrowding. CDCR appealed an October 2020 appellate court order for San Quentin to reduce its population by 50 percent, through transfers or immediate early release of those eligible for elderly parole. The California Supreme Court sent the case back to the appellate court. With all the stalling and available avenues of appeal, I fear that COVID mutations will arrive before the courts can save us.
I’m still at 200 percent of design capacity in my cell. After Shawn moved out in July, I received Mike as my new cellie in August. Shawn also has a cellie in his new cell on the second tier. Mike is cool as a fan but I feel like I’m meeting too many people during a pandemic; he makes my third cellie since June.
Rumors say San Quentin is going one man per cell. I have been hearing that since September though and while it’s true now for more than half the population, it was only true for me in July. There’s also two people living on my left, two feet and a wall away, and one person on my right.
COVID mutations aren’t my only fear. San Quentin uses these plastic trays that stack on top of each other to serve us warm food. Mike found a french fry from breakfast on his dinner tray.
I also have some medical issues that haven’t been figured out. The bump on my neck wasn’t a new growth. Two corrections officers took me out to Marin General for a CT scan to make that determination. And now I’m waiting to see if something else is wrong with my prostate. I’ve been pissing all day lately and getting up at least once or twice at night. Been trying to see what’s up with that since September but CDCR medical care prioritizes pain over other symptoms. My urine test shows nothing so the doctor wrote there’s no reason to see me. However, the coldest medical killers, cancer, heart disease and sometimes COVID-19, don’t show serious symptoms or pain, sometimes, until it’s too late.
Working out has been my medicine. Each tier gets yard separately every other day for 90 minutes. During the time, we also get one phone call and a chance to shower. There are ten showers and 12 phones for about 100 people to use in that time frame. Somehow, I squeeze in a workout, phone call and shower before having to lock up for another 40-something hours.
I wish I could go to work in the media center instead of being stuck in a cell. That might happen soon, judging by the tents on the yard being gone and PIA (Prison Industry Authority) going back to business. Education is even running one building at a time, once every ten days or so. I figure my antibodies will protect me from COVID-19 and the prison system can’t protect me from mutations so I might as well put on my N-95 mask and go to work. Yep, you heard right—CDCR keeps us well supplied with N-95 masks. Maybe I should sleep with mines on.