Pandemic Prisoners' Rights Steve Brooks

Omicron Spread Continues at San Quentin State Prison

Two months after a Marin County judge ruled that prison officials inflicted cruel and unusual punishment on prisoners at San Quentin State Prison during a COVID-19 outbreak that infected more than 2,600 in the summer of 2020, the prison faces another outbreak.
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By Steve Brooks / Prison Journalism Project

At San Quentin State Prison (SQ), a musical symphony of hoarse voices, hacking coughs and the clearing of congested nasal passages is signaling another outbreak of COVID-19. 

The new Omicron variant, which reportedly broke out in SQ’s Alpine and H-Units early January, is now spreading throughout the North and West Block housing units even though the prison was placed on a 15-day lockdown last week along with other California prisons. 

Prisoners are blaming staff for bringing COVID-19 back in. “Staff are the only ones who can bring it in,” prisoner Arthur Jackson said. “They’re working all over the prison. They’re searching cells all the time. They’re not just bringing it [into] the prison, but in our cells.”

California correctional officers are also not, as of a Nov. 26 federal court ruling, required to get vaccinated, and not all are tested, which means officers who are asymptomatic but positive may be reporting to work. 

“They have had ample opportunity to bring Omicron into other buildings and make this quarantine useless,” Jackson said. 

According to a Jan. 11 article in the Marin Independent Journal, there had only been six active COVID-19 cases among prisoners and 83 among staff in the previous two weeks. But on Jan. 21, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) COVID-19 tracker recorded 255 active prisoner cases and 91 active staff cases at SQ. Between Dec. 26 and Jan. 9, cases among prisoners statewide increased by more than eight times. 

This latest outbreak comes just about two months after a Marin court judge ruled that prison officials inflicted cruel and unusual punishment on prisoners at SQ during a massive COVID-19 outbreak that killed 29 people and infected more than 2,600 in the summer of 2020.

As of yet, no one has gotten seriously ill this time around. What appears to be saving the lives of prisoners at SQ is the fact that many of us have already had COVID-19, and have taken two vaccines plus a booster shot. Those incarcerated at SQ have a 91% vaccination rate, according to CDCR. 

Nevertheless, nurses have been walking the tiers to do wellness checks and asking prisoners to take tests. Many are refusing out of fear of being isolated. 

According to Michael Mizuo, an Inmate Advisory Council representative, prison officials have said that those who test positive would be placed in isolation for at least 10 days. Prisoners in North Block would also stay in quarantine for an additional 14 days. It’s a Catch-22 for prisoners. 

“They said that lots of people aren’t testing and that people need to start taking the COVID-19 tests or the quarantine will last longer,” Mizuo said, after attending a recent meeting with SQ’s associate warden and Chief Medical Officer Allison Pachinski. 

According to CDCR’s website, only 61% of SQ’s prisoner population have been tested in the last two weeks. 

In many ways, life at SQ has continued as usual. Officers are ordering workers in the main kitchen to report to their shifts even if they have the virus or have been exposed to it. 

“They told me I had to go to work, but I could choose which shift,” said Jerry Gearin, who caught COVID-19 in 2020 and almost died. 

“What can we do?,” asked Jonathan Jimenez, another kitchen worker who had previously caught COVID-19. 

Gearin and Jimenez are two of the lucky ones, since some kitchen workers had died during the 2020 outbreak. 

Still, they said their jobs were an opportunity to get out of their cramped cells. The kitchen offers freedom of movement, a daily shower, extra food and 24 cents an hour of pay. 

Just as in 2020, however, overcrowding may be helping to fuel this outbreak. Over a year ago, an appeals court ordered San Quentin to cut its population in half to 1,775 prisoners, but a California Superior Court judge put that order on hold last October, prompting prison officials to maintain a population that is currently over 3,100. That number may rise even further.

Many of the same, unsafe conditions that led the Superior Court judge to find that officials inflicted “cruel and unusual punishment” on SQ prisoners still exist today. Most cells are double occupancy, meaning that two cellmates share a space of less than 50 square feet. Prisoners are sitting in these cramped cells 22 to 24 hours a day, reducing them to near solitary confinement conditions. 

“North Block is so packed you can’t walk without bumping into someone,” prisoner Earnest Woods said. “When I walk back and forth to the chow hall I have to navigate through a crowd like I’m at a concert.” 

During shower times, which are conducted every three days, upward of fifty people pack into the tight shower space for 30 minutes at a time, before officers let out the next tier. 

“The ventilation system still isn’t fixed,” prisoner Lecedric Johnson commented. “Windows are still welded shut and doors are kept closed.” 

Johnson was also hospitalized when he caught COVID-19 in 2020. 

While Omicron has not resulted in the tragedy of the 2020 outbreak, the fear is that the next outbreak won’t be as benign. 

“What will happen if we get a variant the vaccines can’t help us with?” Woods asked. “I guess we’re just waiting to see if we die here.”

Steve Brooks
Steve Brooks

Steve Brooks is a contributing writer for the Prison Journalism Project and San Quentin News, a newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California where he is incarcerated. He has been published in the San Francisco Public Press, Street Spirit, All of Us or None and Voice of Witness. He won a 2020 Journalism Excellence Award by the Society of Professional Journalists Northern California chapter for two of his columns in PJP. Steve has completed two college degrees in liberal arts and social and behavioral sciences and plans to obtain a bachelor’s degree in sociology. He has been incarcerated for more than two-and-a-half decades years.


  1. Can anyone tell me what is the number of deaths among unvaccinated populations like the Palestinians who Israel cruely denied the vaccines. Or Africa that was denied vaccine access.

    If the number of deaths is not statistically significant than those who were vaccinated, then what is everyone so insanely demonizing unvaccinated people for? This is the most stupid witch hunt ever. It is akin to burning witches at the stake and people’s minds have been programmed to accept such rubbish.

  2. As long as basic human rights are observed, such processes can have an important role to play.
    Improve access to justice and case management during pre-trial detention

    Countries with the highest levels of overcrowding also have prison populations with the highest proportions of pre-trial detainees. In 40 countries more than half of prisoners are held on remand. Efforts to address the problem of lengthy pre-trial detention include:
    increasing legal aid and assistance and supplementing this by making use of paralegals to provide advice to defendants;
    enforcing time limits in criminal proceedings;
    offering bail and other alternatives to pre-trial detention;
    holding ‘camp courts’ inside prisons; and
    reforming criminal procedure so that cases are reviewed regularly and brought to a conclusion more speedily.

    Develop and implement constructive non-custodial measures and sentences

    Too many criminal justice systems, whether noncustodial responses exist in law or not, still use imprisonment as their default sanction. This can be because of: mistaken beliefs that society’s and the victim’s interests are best served by a custodial sentence; excessive influence of the police and prosecutors over the criminal justice system; and poor training for judges or their fear of being considered corrupt or ‘soft’ on crime.

    Sometimes there is either no organisation available to supervise community sentences or a shortage of resources for implementation of responses to crime which permit the offender to remain in and provide compensation to the community. A range of community-based sentences should be available to courts including discharges, fines and community service and measures should be taken to assist offenders to comply with these.

    Non-custodial sentencing can be particularly effective for women offenders who are usually apprehended for non-violent crimes and whose crimes are often closely related to their economic and social disadvantage in society.

    Make special arrangements for children and young offenders
    Children differ from adults in their physical and psychological development, and their emotional and educational needs.

    These differences constitute the basis for the lesser culpability of children in conflict with the law and require different responses to be available. The experience of imprisonment can often strengthen rather than weaken a child’s delinquency. It said that children under 12 should not be liable to prosecution. For those under 18, traditional objectives of criminal justice, such as repression and retribution, must give way to education and restorative measures.

    The best interests of the child should be a primary consideration in making decisions, and this can be done while still paying attention to effective public safety.

  3. why are such lies published—US vaccines do not prevent Covid. omicron is no worse than ordinary flu. unless visitors are not permitted, contagion derives from many not only employees

    1. I don’t know about where you live, but here, in person visiting was suspended at the beginning of 2020.
      The danger of Covid in prison is attributable to extremely poor nutrition, which exacerbates all of the co-morbidity issues associated with Covid.
      The absence of health care for the “offenders” just magnifies the severity of the problem.
      I don’t have a solution.
      But, that doesn’t prevent me from seeing some of the problems with minimizing the risks to my fellow citizens who can’t protect themselves.
      All this crying about lockdowns.
      Unless you’ve been to prison, you don’t know what a lockdown is.
      Try living in your bathroom for a few years, with a bunkmate.
      I’m not directing my comments at anyone specific.
      I’m just trying to provide a little reality check.

  4. Prisons by other names, as in Internment Camps, Covid Camps, Reeducation Camps:

    In the politically charged, polarizing tug-of-war that is the debate over COVID-19, we find ourselves buffeted by fear over a viral pandemic that continues to wreak havoc with lives and the economy, threats of vaccine mandates and financial penalties for noncompliance, and discord over how to legislate the public good without sacrificing individual liberty.

    The discord is getting more discordant by the day.

    Just recently, for instance, the Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board suggested that government officials should mandate mass vaccinations and deploy the National Guard “to ensure that people without proof of vaccination would not be allowed, well, anywhere.”

    In other words, lock up the unvaccinated and use the military to determine who gets to be “free.”

    These tactics have been used before.

    This is why significant numbers of people are worried: because this is the slippery slope that starts with well-meaning intentions for the greater good and ends with tyrannical abuses no one should tolerate.

    For a glimpse at what the future might look like if such a policy were to be enforced, look beyond America’s borders.

    In Italy, the unvaccinated are banned from restaurants, bars and public transportation, and could face suspensions from work and monthly fines.

    In Austria, anyone who has not complied with the vaccine mandate could face fines up to $4100. Police will be authorized to carry out routine checks and demand proof of vaccination, with penalties of as much as $685 for failure to do so.

    In China, which has adopted a zero tolerance, “zero COVID” strategy, whole cities—some with populations in the tens of millions—are being forced into home lockdowns for weeks on end, resulting in mass shortages of food and household supplies. For those unfortunate enough to contract COVID-19, China has constructed “quarantine camps” throughout the country: massive complexes boasting thousands of small, metal boxes containing little more than a bed and a toilet. Detainees—including children, pregnant women and the elderly— were reportedly ordered to leave their homes in the middle of the night, transported to the quarantine camps in buses and held in isolation.

    If this last scenario sounds chillingly familiar, it should.

    Eighty years ago, another authoritarian regime established more than 44,000 quarantine camps for those perceived as “enemies of the state”: racially inferior, politically unacceptable or simply noncompliant.

    While the majority of those imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps, forced labor camps, incarceration sites and ghettos were Jews, there were also Polish nationals, gypsies, Russians, political dissidents, resistance fighters, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.

    Culturally, we have become so fixated on the mass murders of Jewish prisoners by the Nazis that we overlook the fact that the purpose of these concentration camps were initially intended to “incarcerate and intimidate the leaders of political, social, and cultural movements that the Nazis perceived to be a threat to the survival of the regime.”

    How do you get from there to here, from Auschwitz concentration camps to COVID quarantine centers?

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