Life

Trapped in the Dungeon

San Quentin State Prison built a hospital on top of an old dungeon as a celebration of progress. But the prison’s COVID disaster proves little has changed.

An aerial view of San Quentin prison, with tents set up in the yard.
A tent hospital at San Quentin State Prison, which suffered one of the worst COVID outbreaks in California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

San Quentin State Prison has been, for some time now, the site of the worst public health crisis in California’s history. As a newly released report by California’s Office of the Inspector General details, the state transferred incarcerated people from another prison into San Quentin without adequately testing them, seeding an outbreak that killed close to 30 people and infected more than 2,500 others. I was incarcerated at San Quentin until October and witnessed the horrors of this outbreak firsthand, including the deaths of beloved community members, and the infection’s long-term health impacts on many others.

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During “normal” times, the prison is presented as a symbol of the California Department of Corrections’ commitment to rehabilitation, even though most of its educational, self-development, and vocational programs are not available in the system’s 34 other institutions. Because of its proximity to San Francisco, San Quentin is a popular place for free people to tour, with groups coming into the prison three or more times a week.

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In June 2019, I was part of a group that gave the cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton a tour of San Quentin. They had just begun their San Francisco residence and came to the prison to meet some of the incarcerated people who make up the arts community inside. I remember the phase of the tour that takes visitors into the “Dungeon,” a decaying rock and clay brick structure that was built by people incarcerated at the prison in 1854. Used for solitary confinement until the 1940s, the Dungeon is now framed as a relic of San Quentin’s punitive and barbaric past. It is a popular stop on the tour route, as it allows visitors to feel like they can crawl inside the experience of the incarcerated.

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We, the tour guides, and they, the tourists, congregated inside the dark brick chamber, with just a sliver of ambient light emanating from a distant barred window facing an opposing brick wall. The air inside felt stale, and I started to imagine all of the souls that once resided in this icy entombment. The door closed, and from the pitch black stillness there was an explosion of nervous laughter. Just as quickly as unease set in, we all rushed out of the unlocked door and back into the sunshine of the prison yard.

I could hear refrains of “What a relief that we’re out of there,” and similar sentiments emanating from the crowd. I couldn’t help thinking about the clever trick that was being played on all of us in that moment where the prison yard suddenly felt like sanctuary.

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The fact that the Dungeon still exists is no accident of fate. In 2009, the state built a 5-floor, $136 million hospital on the site of a crumbling brick structure that housed the prison’s receiving and release (R&R), library, and then-shuttered Dungeon. The design of the new building, curiously, and without regard for aesthetics, left certain aspects of the original architecture intact, creating an unsightly hodge-podge of 19th-century brick transposed on a modern façade. Of the remnants that still stand, the Dungeon is the only structure wholly intact – the library and R&R have been replaced by new iterations.

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The Dungeon, billed as a solemn memorial to San Quentin’s bygone cruelty, hopes to distract us from the brutality of the present. Its preservation was intentional within the design of the new structure — the hospital representing a progressive and humane shift in attitude toward the incarcerated; the Dungeon, as part of the same structure, hearkening its antithesis. We empathize with the imaginary prisoner of some distant past, while the presence of the hospital eases our fears about the present by suggesting that the institution is taking care of its residents and helping them to heal, calming our analytical inclinations and what our eyes are screaming at us.

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But as San Quentin experienced what health experts proclaimed was the second worst COVID outbreak in the nation this summer, the multi-million dollar hospital structure provided little in the way of prevention or relief for the people incarcerated at San Quentin. Numerous incarcerated people have been sent to hospitals in neighboring communities to receive emergency care, access to ventilators, and ICU beds. So one is left to wonder, what is the function of the hospital if not to deliver medical care?

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At the same time that the prison’s new health care facility lacks a functioning hospital that provides adequate health care for incarcerated people, San Quentin’s archaic housing structures — massive cell blocks packed with human beings confined in poorly ventilated, unsanitary, and squalid conditions — have, by all accounts, accelerated and exacerbated the spread of the virus throughout the prison.

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The COVID crisis makes clear that the Dungeon is not a vestige of an inhumane past, but a symbol of how little things have changed. In some ways, conditions have gotten even worse. In its time, the Dungeon’s fourteen 12 by 6 foot cells held 45 people; today, over 2,200 people have tested positive for COVID-19 at San Quentin while locked in cells. For the last 11 months, incarcerated people at San Quentin have been confined to living spaces measuring 4 ½ by 10 ½ feet for up to 23 hours a day due to the lockdown imposed because of the COVID pandemic in all California prisons. This lockdown has done little to stem the tide of the virus, which has attacked all of the state’s 35 institutions.

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The use of symbols to create simplistic narratives about our past seek to induce collective amnesia and skirt critical analysis. A century ago, after all, prisons were seen as the humane alternative to hangings, torture, or other forms of corporal punishment. This narrative of progress fails to recognize the parallels between public execution and death by COVID, or between the Dungeon and the SHU, or for that matter — an overreach no 18th-century reformer could have ever imagined — mass incarceration.

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The arc of history is not linear, and despite our collective fantasy of progress, we are not always better tomorrow than we are today. A new era of activists is beginning to examine and call for the removal of symbols which shape and uphold harmful narratives of our nation’s past, and which undergird violent systems of power. Many Americans are starting to recognize that Confederate monuments serve as tools of a revisionist and sanitized history that seek to erase ongoing systemic violence. CDCR uses the Dungeon for a similar purpose, as a symbol of evolution out of the age of cruel punishment into an era of humane rehabilitation. Artists, like those at San Quentin, understand the work of narrative; that it’s not only your object of focus but also your vantage point that determines what becomes obscured and what becomes visible.

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In October 2019, the Hamilton cast returned to San Quentin to watch a performance by the Shakespeare Theater troupe. After the show, many of us who had been part of the tour came together with the cast and shared news and reflections on the experience that we had. I eagerly sought out the company manager, whom I had spent a lot of time with on the tour. She explained how moved she was to see the level of humanity that existed here on the inside. “Can I give you a hug?” she asked through moist eyes. I responded nervously, “It’s probably not a good idea,” my eyes scanning for correctional officers on the lookout for prisoners violating the rules of overfamiliarity. My mind taking me back to the darkness, the panic and fear I felt not only in the Dungeon, but in every breath of my incarceration.

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