My San Quentin Death Row Coronavirus Experience

Photograph Source: Aerial view of San Quentin State Prison, in Marin County, California – Public Domain

In late January 2020, President Donald Trump was fully aware of the potential danger and present threat of Coronavirus, even as it would take the WHO until March 11 to declare a pandemic. In that same month, San Quentin prisoners received an administrative notification that one of the guards tested positive. At the time, I was not overly concerned because I was healthy and in good shape, but of course viruses, pathogens with the sole aim of wreaking havoc on healthy cells, don’t care about that.

San Quentin’s initial flimsy attempt to thwart the virus was to issue face masks, pass out hand sanitizer, cancel all visiting, halt movement except for emergencies, and split the recreational yard in half in an effort to limit the number of prisoners in close contact. These measures would fail completely.

In these early stages, rumors began circulating about outbreaks in other prisons, including The California Institute for Men (CIT), which turned out to be the epicenter of the California prison spread. But in early days, San Quentin was still relatively free of any Covid-19 cases. Unfortunately, under a court order, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on May 31 transferred 121 prisoners from CIT to an already overcapacity and overcrowded San Quentin.

Several of these transferred prisoners were put in quarantine the moment they stepped off the bus because they exhibited signs of Covid-19! Unsurprisingly, within a matter of days the virus spread wildly, infecting both inmates and guards in high numbers, leading to a lockdown of the prison.

In the second week of June I was transferred to East Block—a unit that houses most Death Row prisoners—and prisoners there were experiencing symptoms when I arrived. However, because the prison was not testing people in East Block at the point no one knew who was positive or negative. It was not until June 18 when staff announced over the intercom that testing for Covid-19 would be offered to all prisoners who wanted it, but testing was not mandatory. Most things in prison are, of course mandatory, so why not Covid-19 testing in the midst of an outbreak?

For me, getting a test was a no-brainer. I always want to know what’s happening to my body, good or bad.

On June 18 I was escorted into a long line of other Death Row prisoners waiting in a small recreation yard to be tested. When my turn came up, I was directed to sit in a chair, with a guard posted behind me. To my left on two tables draped with a white cloth were spread medical paraphernalia. The two nurses present were outfitted in biohazard suits, looking like they were ready to inspect a contaminated lab.

“It’s gonna be simple,” one told me, as she asked my name and CDC number. “I will swab you’re your throat first for five or six seconds and then your nostrils.” She leaned over me, gently lifted up my mask, and inserted the Q-Tip in my throat, then my nostrils.

She was right; it was simple, and not painful. In fact, it sort of tickled and nearly made me laugh.

Later that evening, I felt a mild but irritating headache coming on. I wasn’t alarmed but couldn’t understand what brought it on. By the next morning, however, this mild headache became a major throbbing pain, which felt as if someone were bouncing basketballs inside my head, and I felt weak, like I was coming down with a bug, possibly the flu. I told myself I’d soldier through it, as I had done many times before. I figured once I did my daily exercises, I’d feel better. But I labored through my routine, uncharacteristically having to sit down and rest between sets, bending over with my hands on my knees, breathing hard through my mouth.

Over the next few days in incremental stages, I experienced a series of symptoms which, before my tests results came back, convinced me I was stricken with Covid-19. My headed pounded without respite for three days, the excruciating pain traveling back and forth between the crown of my head and forehead. When I placed my fingers on ether spot it felt soft and tender, and I felt if I pressed down harder my fingers might sink into my skull. I developed a dry cough that got worse when I laid down, and experienced dramatic chills, shaking, and body aches.

My hands trembled like I was a junkie in need of a fix, and when I tried to a hold a tumbler filled with water and raise it to my mouth my hand shook so much I had either to hold it with both hands or use a straw. I lost my appetite and my sense of taste, and my stomach felt bloated. I thought making one of my favorite breakfasts, oatmeal, might help, so I chopped up a banana and mixed it in with some peaches, trail mix, and spoonful of peanut butter. But it tasted horrible, and I flushed it down the toilet. I wanted nothing more to do with food.

The extreme fatigue I felt was the worst, as if oxygen was constantly being sucked from my lungs. I would fall asleep around 7:00 pm and sleep for twelve hours, forcing myself out of bed each morning to walk a few steps back and forth in my narrow cell, and that was a challenge. I did not have the energy to read. Ultimately, and this went on for five or six days, I would stretch out on a wool blanket on the floor, cover myself with another blanket, and sleep off and on much of the day, which is uncommon for me.

While I was sick, I regularly heard the loud buzzard-like sound of the cellblock alarm go off, which is most often precipitated by a cadre of prisoners shouting in unison, “Man down, man down, man down!” along with the cell number of the person in distress. On a daily basis, people on the block were passing out and experiencing respiratory problems due to Covid-19. The worst cases were transferred to an outside hospital and placed on ventilators. Some never returned.

As of this writing (early September 2020), twenty-seven San Quentin prisoners have died from Covid-19 and over twenty-two hundred have tested positive. Nearly everyone who lived on my tier tested positive. A red sticker, the Covid-19 Scarlett Letter, was taped on the front of each of our cells.

Twice a day nurses stopped by my cell to ask if I wanted my temperature and oxygen checked. They also asked a series of other questions: Are you experiencing shortness of breath? Do you have a fever? Have you lost your taste and sense of smell? Do you have a cough or headache? Since I never reported a fever or shortness of breath, I was not considered to be in the danger zone.

The only advice I got from nurses was to drink plenty of water and to let the staff know of any changes in my symptoms. That’s all they had for me. The medical staff had already bungled their job when they allowed prisoners in East Block who tested positive to stay in their cells instead of removing them immediately from the building or prison, if necessary, so my expectations were low. They tested us, but they didn’t act accordingly. I understood that this was uncharted territory for the prison staff and medical personnel at San Quentin, but it was hard to understand the failure for the prison to follow basic protocol for slowing or stopping the spread of the virus.

My next-door neighbor and friend tested positive on the same day I did. He experienced several of the same symptoms, but his headache, chills, and body aches and coughing lasted only 24 hours, while it took two weeks for him to regain his lost sense of taste and smell. When I confided in him that I had avoided food for four days, he told me I should try eating some soup, and gave me two packets of Top Ramen. While even the idea of eating other food in my locker filled me with disgust, the prospect of soup appealed to me, taking me back to the days my mother served chicken or tomato soup to soothe me when I caught a cold, had a sore throat, or came down with a fever. The first spoonful went down with ease, and the second, third and fourth tasted even better. I saved the second packet; if I was on the mend, I didn’t want to press my luck.

That night around 2:00 am I woke up drenched in sweat. My sheets and pillowcase were so wet I had to replace them with another set. I washed up, went back to sleep, and woke up a few hours later feeling rejuvenated. Within a couple of days, I was able to get back into my regular routine: the headaches, chills, body aches and coughing that had wracked my body were gone. Food was good again, and I felt as strong as ever. The latest reports suggest that symptoms can linger or reappear in different forms and that you can be reinfected, so I don’t know if I’m completely out of the woods, and I don’t expect San Quentin to vanquish the virus anytime soon. But I’m glad to be alive and well, along with everyone else in the world who has survived their encounter with this monstrosity.

The coronavirus and Covid-19 remind me exactly how vulnerable I am, along with all the people on earth who live in poor communities without political influence or access to proper medical care. It also reminds me, and should remind everyone, that we are all connected, no matter where we are; we share the same earth and our common humanity should inspire us to preserve it by taking good care of it, and of each other.

Steve Champion is an incarcerated writer whose most recent book, coauthored with Craig Ross, The Architect: How to Transform Yourself and Your World, is published by Palewell Press, 2019. You can find a video about the writers and the book here.