What Next: How California Created Its Newest COVID Hotspot

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S1: Over the last couple of years, Megan Cassidy has become a bit of an expert on life inside California’s prisons, especially California’s oldest prison. San Quentin guards, inmates, relatives of people inside. They all seem to know how to reach her. So does that mean your cell phone is ringing all the time?

S2: Yeah, I joke that I think that my phone number is written on a bathroom stall somewhere in there.

S1: It’s actually the journalists at the prison newspaper who’ve become some of Megan’s best sources.


S2: There are a couple guys there that if I if I say, hey, I’m looking for somebody who can talk to me about suicides in prisons, all get three calls that day from somebody who knows somebody, but from from the inside, that can help me along with my story.

S1: When did your contacts inside start talking to you about the Corona virus? Only about a month ago.

S3: A month ago, that’s when a few dozen new inmates showed up. All of them transfers from the same prison seven hours south. Megan’s contacts started hearing coughing and then they started getting sick.

S1: How many inmates are there at San Quentin?

S2: It’s about thirty five hundred right now.


S1: How many of them have tested positive at this point?

S2: I think it’s it’s it’s about fourteen hundred. So so it’s about one in three.

S1: Once you have that many people testing positive.


S4: Is it even possible to control the outbreak?

S2: No, no, I mean, not not in a place like San Quentin.

S4: Today on the show, how San Quentin became a corona virus hotspot, the virus was seeded here by state officials who either didn’t know enough or didn’t care. And now those same officials, they’ve got to figure out whether they can make things right. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.


S1: I feel like in some ways to understand what’s happening at San Quentin right now, you have to understand California’s prison system a little bit and how overcrowded it is. Like I’ve seen these pictures of people triple bunked. And my understanding is that in San Quentin, you actually have prisoners using a gymnasium as a dorm, right?

S2: Yeah. It would take some 20000 odd prisoners within the system to be released just to be at capacity throughout the system. And so just to be at likes normal, just to be at 100 percent capacity. Right.

S1: Pre coronavirus. Right.

S4: The Supreme Court has ordered California to fix its overcrowded prisons. It actually ruled the conditions there are cruel and unusual. A federal judge is now overseeing this process. And early on, advocates told this judge one way to protect inmates was to simply release them, get them out of these struggling facilities instead. When the corona virus started surging at a men’s prison in Chino, the state decided to move prisoners around. That’s how this latest outbreak started.


S2: It seemed to me like this transfer was OK. The writing’s on the wall. We have to get some of these medically vulnerable people out of this prison before they get hit. And so the decision was made to take six, I think is six hundred and ninety one is close to 700 incarcerated people from the Chino prison to other facilities.


S1: And the idea was by transferring them, we’ll reduce the spread of the corona virus. Exactly. More than 100 inmates from Chino ended up in San Quentin, where there were no recorded cases of Kofod 19. So describe, you know, these men get on buses to go to San Quentin. Were they attempting to socially distance on the buses? Was there any kind of special way that they were processed once they got to San Quentin?


S2: Yeah. So the so from what has been told to me is there there’s not really much of a way to social distance on the bus. They they were given facemasks. But, you know, obviously then the bus driver is on there, too. There’s a handful of guards on there as well. Short answer, no. And then when they were offloaded, that’s when people at San Quentin started seeing something’s really wrong here.

S1: So when your sources inside the prison began calling you like a month ago, what were they saying right after that transfer?

S2: I started getting some calls from not only the people inside, but also some of my sources who are staffers there. Once the transfers came, it was obvious that a handful of them were already sick. You know, just visibly ill coughing purportedly. They had all tested negative before they got on buses. But what my colleague Jason Ferrone and I found out was, yeah, they’ve been tested previously, but that in some cases it was up to a month earlier and they didn’t know. And what I didn’t know at the time was that in reality, twenty five, a full twenty five of those men tested positive as soon as they got to San Quentin. It was a really botched move on and something that they they’ve admitted to making a huge mistake as well.


S1: Did you tell the people you were talking to what you knew?

S2: Oh, of course. What I found the the saddest was that I had more information being on the outside than some of the incarcerated people had. It’s interesting. Now, I’m I’m I’m used to asking the questions that, you know, in this case, I was also sharing what I knew and not with being incarcerated people with their family members, too. I know Jason and I got several emails, several calls, Twitter messages, any way to get a hold of us from worried wives and mothers and children. And everybody has a different story. Somebody will say, hey, my nephew or my my kid, he has some sort of a medical issue and they’re still housing them in the gym. And there’s no social distancing there. More recently, it’s, hey, I’ve tested positive. And my Sally, the person that I live in the cell with, he works in the kitchen. So I know I know there’s a man I talked to that was saying, like, I’m worried that now he’s going to spread my virus to other people. A lot of people were worried that they were going to be treant, that some minutes and Clintons were going to be transferred to North Kern. Is that another? Unit. That’s another. I’m sorry. It’s another prison near Bakersfield. And people were really worried because of prison politics that there is this perception that San Quentin is a what’s called a special needs yard. So people who are snitches, who have helped out police or have an unfavorable crime conviction like like a sexual assault. There are prison rules that they will get immediately assaulted if they go to this north current.

S1: And so like like it’s just understood. It’s understood. If you go to this prison, like, that’s what’s going to happen.

S2: Yeah. You’ll you’ll be assaulted on arrival. And so I got a lot of calls about that, that I fear for my life if I am transferred to another facility. So a lot of people didn’t want to be tested for that reason, that if they tested negative, they would be transferred.

S1: So my understanding about this current outbreak is that it began in a single unit. The Badger unit.

S2: Can you explain exactly what happened there when the men were transferred to San Quentin? They were offloaded and immediately tested. The ones who were exhibiting symptoms were isolated. The ones who were just exposed were quarantined in Badger. So that’s where the bulk of these 121 men went.


S1: Where does isolation or quarantine look like in a place like San Quentin?

S2: Yeah. Isolation is in the adjustment center. So that’s the whole. So it’s solitary confinement. Yes. So that that’s another reason that a lot of the people, at least in the beginning, didn’t want to be tested, because if you test positive, you’re essentially being punished for it. You’re you’re thrown in the hole or you have whatever few rights that you can cling to, which are phone privileges, visiting the canteen or guard time. Those those are taken away from you.

S1: The unit where most of these Chino prisoners ended up badger, it became the center of the San Quentin outbreak because quarantining there didn’t mean real separation.


S2: Badger is more general population housing. It’s it’s like what you think of when you see a movie of presidents. That’s the steel bars and they are stacked on top of each other. How many floors? Five floors and the calm tiers. So basically, like the the air mixes, the droplets mix, they’re allowed to fall onto the lower tiers.


S1: And the men from Chino were put on the top tier. Right. Exactly. Right on the top two tiers. So you can just see how you cough and a droplet escapes. And it just falls down. Right. Exactly. Past all these other open cells. Yeah. Right. Did it just sound like coughing day in and day out to the people who were there?


S2: Yes. And then what I’m hearing now is it’s just man down over every few minutes, like over the P.A. system. Right. Yeah. Five people have died since the coronavirus hits at least three of them. It was due to a virus. And my sources inside say that the other two are likely that, too.

S1: When you ask the prison about this arrangement, about the idea of putting prisoners who’d been exposed to the corona virus on top of other prisoners without any way of closing people off from each other, what did they say to you?

S2: All we’re told is that the men from Chino were quarantined separately from the from the general population. Those who have tested positive are exhibiting symptoms or isolated. That sounds like a lie. It’s at the very least, very misleading. Yeah. And see, I think you could argue that it’s a lie. They’re not double bunking with the general population. But, you know, you could yell to somebody and beg and they could hear you easily. It’s all in the same unit.

S1: So when you see this number reported that more than a thousand people have tested positive for the coronavirus at San Quentin. Do you think it’s way more than that? Yeah, for sure. Well, it’s been difficult to find out exactly how bad the outbreak is at San Quentin because so many inmates don’t even want to get tested. Like Megan said, they fear being transferred or landing in solitary. So officials are stuck with estimates that are probably pretty far off the mark. So. You’ve got these reports in early June that people were worried and then gradually it sounds like you noticed more and more people becoming sick. And the reports became a little undeniable. Right. I’m curious how advocates for prisoners are trying to change things on the inside, maybe push for changes that they couldn’t get a few months back when they were originally advocating for a large scale release. What does that look like now?


S2: Well, it actually looks very similar. The one thing really that that the prison could do to curb this spread is a widespread release. And actually, the judge in the case that we’ve been talking about, he has said in the past that he is not sure that he has the power to do it, but he’s indicated more and more frequently that the prison should just do the release on their own.

S1: I think you wrote that at the last hearing you went to. He wiped away tears.

S2: He did. He did. And it was virtual. But, yes, he he wiped away tears. It was really powerful. I’ve never seen a judge do that before. What moved him? It was it was specifically the outbreak at San Quentin. I don’t think I’ll ever forget. He wiped tears from his eyes and he said, we know what’s going to happen. We know he laid out a couple of his of his ideas that, hey, even if you don’t want to release people into the community, get creative. What about house arrest? What about non prison facility where you move people to, like a hotel or something? Right. Right.

S1: You you reported on a letter that was sent to the state by health researchers who were looking at what’s happening at San Quentin and really warning like this won’t stay inside the prison. And it’s been weeks now and not a lot has changed, except more and more people have gotten sick. I wonder how the area around the prison is preparing for whatever happens now.

S2: They are setting up a one hundred and twenty five, essentially a hospital on the prison grounds. They have set up an incident command center like an emergency Internet command center at the prison, which is something that the unions have called for. The staff are happy about that. But you what we’ve heard is there are about ten incarcerated people sent to hospitals every day now. And so there there is a fear that this is going to start to overwhelm the community health system. Just set a time that we’re starting to see a spike elsewhere as well.


S1: And of course, there are people inside the prison system who don’t stay there, the guards and other people who work there who are going out into the community. Is there evidence that that’s increasing local spread, too?

S5: I wouldn’t be able to speak to that, but I think it’s it would be safe to say there are there are now over 100 people at center, over a hundred staffers at San Quentin who have tested positive. So clearly, they’re they’re going home to their families and back out to the community.

S1: Meghan Cassidy, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you so much for having me. Megan Cassidy is a reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle.

S4: And that’s the show. If you want to know more about what’s happening inside San Quentin. Head on over to Slate’s Web site. We just published a dispatch from an incarcerated journalist who’s there now. What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon and Daniel Hewitt. Every day we get help from Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedikt. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. Talk to you tomorrow.