Amid a rapidly-spreading coronavirus outbreak that’s infected about a third of all people incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, a group of COVID-19 positive prisoners declared a hunger strike this week in protest of what they call “dismal” living conditions during their quarantine, according to sources inside the prison.
Sources inside the prison said about 20 incarcerated men had committed to the hunger strike, but prison officials say only seven have so far refused meals.
Those sources say COVID-19 positive prisoners are locked in cells all day with little to no access to showers, fresh air, or electrical power. They also say medical care is inadequate and men deemed asymptomatic are forced to double up in a single cell.
Incarcerated sources tell NBC Bay Area the hunger strike involves men who tested positive for COVID-19 and were moved from San Quentin’s main line into a reception center housing unit known as Badger section.
"What's happening at San Quentin is the largest human rights tragedy in this state during the Covid era," said James King, state campaigner at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. King was formerly incarcerated at San Quentin until his release in December. "People at San Quentin are now putting their bodies on the line in the hopes of raising awareness. If they are successful, it will save lives not just of incarcerated people, but also the larger community."
CDCR does not officially recognize a hunger strike until prisoners refuse nine consecutive meals. A prison official said seven people have so far refused meals, including dinner on Tuesday and breakfast and lunch on Wednesday.
Prison officials did not directly respond to the hunger strike in a written response to NBC Bay Area, but said, in part:
“We understand and share the concerns of COVID-19 cases in the state’s prisons and are implementing strategies to control the spread of the virus to protect all those who live and work in our state prison.”
The statement said CDCR has taken a number of steps to reduce the virus' spread, including suspending intakes from jails and non-essential transfers, ramping up testing, mandating masks throughout the prison, and establishing a unified command center at San Quentin to coordinate the medical response to COVID-19 cases.
Sources say many in the prison are refusing COVID-19 tests or are hesitant to report feeling ill for fear of being thrown in “the hole.”
In February, incarcerated journalist Juan Haines wrote about the risk prisoners take when self-reporting an illness in a piece that appeared in The Appeal.
The hunger strikers are among the 1,131 prisoners who have tested positive for the virus as of Wednesday morning. Most of those cases – 821 – have come in the past two weeks as the virus runs rampant through the prison. The true numbers are almost certainly higher as hundreds at San Quentin have refused testing, according to prison officials.
As the lockdown at San Quentin tightens, reform advocates and families of incarcerated people say information coming out of the prison has slowed to a trickle. Access to phones has been limited and families say they’re left grasping for answers about the health of incarcerated loved ones.
Tena Kuhl, who says her husband recently tested positive for COVID-19, has not heard from her husband since last week and said she’s desperately worried.
“They should have released him,” said Kuhl, whose husband has a lung disease. “He was almost home and now he’s got Coronavirus. I don’t know if my husband’s going to make it through or not.”
Robyn Archuleta, whose fiancé is on San Quentin’s Death Row, which has been hit especially hard by COVID-19, said her fiancé began feeling ill about two weeks ago but has not been given a test as far as she knows. She said getting information about his health from prison officials has been a struggle.
“They send you here, they send you there – so, it’s very difficult,” Archuleta said
State lawmakers and prison reform advocates unleashed a barrage of criticism at prison officials during a Wednesday Senate Public Safety Committee hearing in Sacramento chaired by State Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.
They took aim at recent prison transfers that led to outbreaks at San Quentin and the California Correctional Center in Susanville, among other institutions.
“It was nothing more than the worst prison health screw up in state history,” said Assemblymember Marc Levine, D-San Rafael. “We did not meet this moment.”
J. Clark Kelso, a federal court-appointed receiver for CDCR, said the goal of the transfer was to move medically vulnerable prisoners from the California Institute for Men in Chino, which was in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak at the time.
CDCR Secretary Ralph Diaz said prison officials have “worked tirelessly” to address COVID-19 at California prisons.
“The thought that we don’t care or I don’t care personally, that’s the farthest from the truth,” Diaz said.
But lawmakers and reform advocates pushed back, pointing to slow testing at state prisons, prison transfers that spread the virus from prison to prison, an inadequate supply of PPE and cleaning supplies for prisoners and staff, and the failure to release a significant number of prisoners who are either close to their release date or likely would not pose a threat to society.
“Access to PPE within San Quentin State Prison as well as other prisons has been widely dismal at best,” said San Quentin nurse Karen Franklin.
Although she said the situation began improving this week, Fraklin said CDCR’s response has been inadequate and is putting staff in harm’s way.
“We need help now,” Franklin said. “Please. Every day I see more and more of our staff testing positive for COVID-19, even though we personally try our best to protect ourselves. It does not feel like the department has done what is needed to protect us.”