San Quentin Was Virus-Free. Not Any More.

San Quentin State Prison | Zboralski (CC BY-SA 3.0)

San Quentin Prison was free of the virus. One decision fueled an outbreak.

What happened at San Quentin is a warning for the nation’s prisons, experts say.

June 30, 2020

The New York Times – The coughing and complaints of sickness began as a procession of busloads of prisoners made its way late last month from a Southern California prison to San Quentin, California’s oldest and most widely known prison, perched on a bluff overlooking San Francisco Bay, not far from the Golden Gate Bridge.

The inmates were being moved to San Quentin as part of a plan to halt the spread of the coronavirus by reducing the number of inmates at the California Institution for Men in Chino, where nine inmates had died and nearly 700 had been infected.

At the time, there were no inmates known to have had the virus at San Quentin.

Within days, some of the 121 prisoners from the buses introduced the virus at San Quentin, public health officials say.

More than 1,000 of the 3,700 prisoners have since been infected at San Quentin, the foreboding structure surrounded by barbed wire fences and dotted with guard towers that was once famously home to inmates including:

  • Charles Manson;
  • Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert F. Kennedy;
  • and George Jackson, an inmate who wrote “Soledad Brother,” a series of letters from prison.

The transfer of inmates — an effort intended to slow the virus, which instead apparently created a new outbreak — has been denounced by health officials and a state lawmaker as a public health failure.

How San Quentin went from being a prison that had held off the virus for months to a place inundated with sick inmates represents a cautionary tale for the nation’s prison system amid the pandemic.

“What happened — what’s happening — it can really happen anywhere, particularly in an overcrowded prison, which unfortunately is the norm,” said Dr. David Sears, a physician and professor of medicine … Read more.