SAN QUENTIN, Caliph. – On a sunny Wednesday in San Quentin State Prison, a handful of people gathered just outside the gates to await the release of their family members. A white van arrived and two elderly men, wearing masks and carrying small bags of items, went to the reception group.
Here, too, the evidence for the coronavirus pandemic was clear. A man hesitated before embracing the woman waiting for him and he held his hand at a distance for a few minutes before getting into her parked car.
Frank Richardson, who came out later in the day, hugged his wife and two sons after nearly four years in prison, but he said he would consider keeping his distance. “I’m tested negative for a while now, but I’m struggling with it,” he said. “We will definitely have that conversation on the way home.”
Thousands of inmates have tested positive for coronavirus in an outbreak in San Quentin, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and 19 have died. Like Richardson, about 18 percent of the prison population was released early to limit the spread. But after testing positive, those who remain incarcerated have lost their privileges of visiting with loved ones, have been confined to the shower only once a week, and have been placed in solitary confinement despite their behavior, family members told NBC News.
Lisa Zinnamon Noel said Stephen Rhashiyd Zinnamon, her brother, who is soon on parole in San Quentin, tested positive for the virus in early June and has been in solitary confinement, or “hole” for at least one months.
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“He described it essentially as a living hell,” she said of conditions in California’s oldest prison during the pandemic. “And not a word from the prison system about when it can be reinstated or what the protocol is for restoring them to the general population. Because you just can’t keep them indefinitely.”
She said that when he calls her, it is difficult to understand him over the shouting in the background, which she takes as an indication of his overcrowding and inability to socially distance himself from others in that part of the prison. “I believe they will only shower once a week,” she said. “They do not take time in the yard. He is not able to work.”
In a statement, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said that “after the coronavirus pandemic hit our community, the department has worked tirelessly to implement measures to protect staff, the incarcerated population, and the community at large.” While it had to suspend the time of recreational calls and phone calls, the department wrote, since July 24 that access had been restored in a limited way.
“There are currently 526 inmates who are actively positive for COVID-19,” the department wrote, calling it a significant drop from previous numbers, with “over 1,500 people identified as ‘recovering’.
San Quentin has also remodeled several areas of its bases as treatment facilities, including a hat and a furniture-making shop, and it has installed an open-air-conditioned tent with space to treat 164 patients, the spokesman said. of the Dana Simas correctional department. She added that San Quentin is providing personal protective equipment, including clothing masks, to people incarcerated there and offers coronavirus testing every seven days for anyone who has previously tested negative or who has refused a test in the past.
“Those who have been housed in separate apartments due to COVID-19 are not moving for punitive reasons,” the department wrote in a statement on its website. “They have been relocated in order to prevent further spread of Covid-19 virus to the affected unit.”
An initial lack of scrutiny is likely to contribute to the outbreak. The Department of Corrections did not test nearly 200 inmates before transferring them from a men’s institution in Chino to San Quentin and other prisons, the San Francisco Chronicle reported in June.
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Some of the arrivals in San Quentin were later tested positive, and as of Wednesday, the department’s official number listed at least 2,168 confirmed past and present cases among people in jail, as well as at least 254 staff members. On Sunday, Johnny Avila Jr. became the 19th man imprisoned in San Quentin to die of the disease. Avila, who was sentenced to death in 1996, was 62 years old.
Avila, like any prisoner, had fundamental rights, even in the death row, to health care and due process, said Adnan Khan, who served the last four years of his 16 years behind bars in San Quentin before his release. his in 2019. Khan is the CEO of New: Store Justice, a nonprofit in California that helps people released from prison fight the stigma of inmates.
“I was sentenced to 25 years in prison,” he said. “But I was not sentenced to die by COVID.” Khan said the chronic overcrowding and overly long sentences in California prisons are to blame for the crisis. “The reason we have a COVID prison problem is because we have a mass incarceration problem.”
NBC News is not reporting men’s crimes because they have no bearing on their right to proper health care.
Richardson said that in his unit, about 80 men sleep in separate bundles with low brick walls and breathe the same air into a single room. He said he and the people involved with him had been wearing masks steadily since April, but that wearing masks by correctional officers had been inconsistent until recently.
“They wear them only in their mouths, not in their noses. Some of them have them around their necks. I’ve seen them in the yard without them,” Richardson said. He described trying to persuade a guard to wear a mask. “He goes, ‘Don’t worry about me, Dad, worry about yourself.’ And I’m like ‘I’m worried about myself.'”
In a June memorandum, researchers from the University of California, School of Public Health, and Berkeley change, a program at the University of California, San Francisco that seeks to change American prison policy based on European models, predicted a “local epidemic of full blossom and health care crisis in prison and surrounding communities “and provided detailed recommendations to prison officials, including reducing the incarcerated population by at least 50 percent to slow the spread of the virus.
The problem is not limited to San Quentin, nor to facilities in California.
As of July 21, at least 70,717 people in U.S. prisons had tested positive for the coronavirus, according to research by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering criminal justice, and the disease has killed at least 713. And yet families say they have limited information about their imprisoned relatives.
Jacque Wilson, a public defender in San Francisco, has a brother in federal custody on Terminal Island in Los Angeles and another detainee in the Arizona County Jail. Wilson Lance’s brother tested positive for COVID-19 on Terminal Island, a federal facility, but the prison has largely cut off contact with his family, Wilson said.
He said he learned of his brother’s condition by letter. And in a video recorded inside the Arizona facility posted on Twitter, his brother Neko complains about leaking toilets, without masks and unsafe conditions. “Incredibly extremely disappointing,” Wilson said.
Richardson said he worries about the people he is leaving behind in San Quentin. “It’s good to see people being let out. There are a lot of good people out there who have made a mistake,” he said before getting into a car with his family. “I feel sorry for those boys because they are in a big incubation box.”