San Quentin Prison Faces New COVID Outbreak, Sparking Fears of 2020 All Over Again

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San Quentin State Prison was the site of one of the country’s worst COVID outbreaks during the early months of the pandemic. More than 2,000 people incarcerated or working at the prison caught the virus in 2020 and 28 people died.

Now, as omicron surges across the country, the virus has a new foothold in California’s oldest prison.

Data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation shows 65 active cases among the men incarcerated there, and another 87 infections among staff members. It’s likely the true number is even higher. According to the CDCR’s dashboard, only 21% of the incarcerated population have been tested within the past two weeks.

With new outbreaks rapidly spreading across California prisons, officials suspended in-person visiting last week and began limiting movement of prisoners and staff between and throughout institutions.

At least eight California prisons currently have more than 100 active COVID cases, according to state data.

While 91% of San Quentin's prisoners are vaccinated, about one in four staff members at the prison are not. Staff vaccination rates are even lower at most other California prisons, sitting below 50% in several cases.

“[Inmates] are being locked down because they don’t want to take the precautions to keep us safe,” said David Jarrell, who spent four years incarcerated at San Quentin before being released last Sunday. “It looks good for them when we get vaccinated, but they refuse to get vaccinated.”

Jarrell, who caught COVID during San Quentin’s first wave, said he fears for the safety of the men he left behind.

“There’s a lot of older people there, so who knows what Covid will do to them if they get it a second time,” Jarrell said.

He said the psychological effects of a sustained lockdown can be devastating. People are kept in cells nearly all day, showers are few and far between, the meals are cold, and family contact is limited. In many cases, Jarrell said, those feeling symptoms don’t report them for fear of being placed in “the hole.”

Incarcerated journalist Juan Haines wrote about that here.

Prison officials acknowledged the adversity in writing on the CDCR website.

“We understand this is a big hardship for the population and their loved ones, but it’s a necessary public health measure to prevent thousands of visitors at our institutions while we seek to control this highly-transmissible COVID variant.”

In response to the surge at San Quentin, state prison officials say they’ve implemented new safety measures and have on-site vaccination clinics for staff five days a week. Those safety protocols include:

  • Enforcing social distancing in the dayroom, canteen, and phones.
  • Allowing only one housing unit or dorm to participate in recreation at any given time
  • Moving educational courses and religious programs inside housing units
  • Suspending in-person visiting
  • Adding “isolation space” within the chapels, gym and housing units that have solid cell doors

This is a developing story. NBC Bay Area will continue to provide updates on the outbreak at San Quentin as we learn more.

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