The devastating toll of San Quentin State Prison’s recent COVID-19 outbreak, which infected more than 2,400 people at the prison and was among the worst outbreaks in the country, may have spread beyond the prison’s walls.
Transfers of incarcerated people from prison to prison were notoriously responsible for large COVID-19 outbreaks at prisons such as San Quentin and Susanville’s California Correctional Center, but incarcerated sources at another Northern California prison say the current outbreak there can be traced to a temporary transfer of correctional officers.
At Folsom State Prison, more than 100 miles from San Quentin, 195 incarcerated people currently have the virus, and many are saying correctional officers temporarily dispatched to San Quentin during the height of the outbreak there brought the virus back to Folsom.
In phone interviews with NBC Bay Area, seven separate people incarcerated at Folsom said at least two correctional officers sent to San Quentin came back to Folsom with the virus. The virus soon began to spread along the tiers assigned to one of those officers, according to incarcerated sources housed in that building.
NBC Bay Area was unable to reach either officer for comment and is not identifying them in this story.
“I can name four [correctional officers] off hand who went to San Quentin and came right back without quarantining or anything,” said Quentin Frazier, who tested positive for COVID-19 and was moved to a tent on the prison’s main yard. “They came straight back. I know two of them had it.”
Frazier said nearly his entire housing unit contracted COVID-19 before being moved to the temporary tent structures on the main yard known as “Tent City.”
“He came straight back to Folsom and he got his whole tier sick,” Frazier said. “That’s what made them test all of us. They did a fast one and a long-term one. The rapid one came back like in six hours. My tier cop came to me and said, ‘Frazier, you were right, you have [COVID-19].’”
CDCR officials said 49 officers from Folsom State Prison were sent to aid the COVID-19 response at San Quentin, working anywhere from one shift to 30 days there.
According to CDCR data, 26 staff members from Folsom State Prison have contracted Coronavirus and 14 of them have returned to work.
Byron George, 21, is housed in the same building as Frazier. While Folsom has had a handful of Coronavirus cases over the past few months, George said the major outbreak occurred soon after the officers returned from San Quentin.
“When the [correctional officers] started going to San Quentin and doing extra time there, whatever they were doing, and they came back, that’s when it started spreading everywhere,” said George, who was also moved to “Tent City.”
George said his symptoms included muscle pain, cough, loss of taste and smell, chills, and fever.
“We don’t know if we’re going to die from this virus,” George said. “We don’t want to die in prison.”
Five other men interviewed by NBC Bay Area also said the outbreak stemmed from Folsom officers returning from San Quentin.
On August 7, CDCR data shows Folsom State Prison had just seven active cases. A week later the prison had 127 active cases. By August 21, the number of active cases hit 278.
In an email last week, CDCR Press Secretary Dana Simas said there was no indication the ongoing outbreak at Folsom State Prison is related to staff who were redirected to San Quentin.
Simas said CDCR implemented a staff testing plan for such officers, which includes a quarantine period and mandatory testing before returning to work at the prison they initially came from.
The policy, announced in July, requires prison staff to be tested no sooner than seven days following their final day of work at the prison they were temporarily dispatched to. During that period, staff are placed on paid leave. If the test comes back negative, the employee may return to work and continue to “self-monitor.”
The testing plan also calls for staff to be retested on the 14th calendar day following their last day of work at San Quentin and can remain at work while the test results are pending.
In response to follow up questions from NBC Bay Area, CDCR officials said all proper protocols were followed by officers returning to Folsom.
However, CDCR officials declined to state if any officers redirected to San Quentin tested positive for COVID-19 after returning to work at Folsom.
The calls from people incarcerated at Folsom echo many of the concerns from people at San Quentin. Some describe being moved to administrative segregation, commonly known as “the hole,” after testing positive for the virus.
“They had tested me on August 10,” said Terrell Cooks, currently incarcerated at Folsom. “They said I was negative. They put me back in my cell, then two hours later, they came back and tested me again and said I was positive. From there, they came and got me and threw me in “ad seg.” They had me there for seven days without ventilation, without proper medical care. I had to go “man down” and went to the hospital.”
Men describe an aging, overcrowded prison where social distancing is impossible. On top of that, those who contracted the virus also face Folsom's summer heat, which has hit 109 degrees this month.
“I caught Corona and I’m sitting in a cell in 102-degree weather with a thermal, with sweat pants on, with a cover, and a beanie,” said Nicholas Beaudreaux, who contracted Coronavirus at the prison. “I got the chills and I’m sitting here, and I can’t breathe, and I tell the nurse that. The nurse just took my fever and said it was regular and then told me to drink water. I just laid there until I got better.”
Beaudreaux isn’t the only one to complain about the level of care at the prison.
“They tell us we’re young, we’re healthy, and this is just in our heads,” Quentin Frazier said. “That’s what they tell us every time."
Suffocating smoke from California wildfires is also affecting people incarcerated at prisons across the state.
On San Quentin’s Death Row, a person incarcerated there said staff keep the windows open, even during the fires, because of mold issues.
“We feel like the smoke coats our mouths,” he said. “Everyone is struggling to breathe, and yet every time we do breathe, it feels like fire going in and back out.”
And at Folsom, Byron George said the fires can’t be helping their recovery from Coronavirus.
“We’re feeling all of that smoke,” George said. “We have ashes flying around.”
George said he’s just trying to hang on until he can see his family again.
“They’re just worried sick about me,” George said.