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At San Quentin, Incarcerated People Organize For Safety As Prison Transfers Spread COVID-19

This article was funded by the Marvel Cooke Fellowship. Read more about this reporting project and make a contribution to fund our fellowship budget.

Adamu Chan, out on parole six years early, still remembers how it felt to be trapped in San Quentin as the Coronavirus spread throughout the California state prison and how that sparked the creation of the #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition that helped him get free.

“I remember how dirty North Block was, how congested, people sick all the time, no ventilation, everyone showering together,” Chan, a Black and Chinese American with long corn-rowed hair from the Bay Area, said. “I woke up every morning with a sense of heightened anxiety about what was going to happen. I feared for my life.”

Chan worked in the prison media center producing videos for First Watch and Division of Rehabilitative Programs TV, a statewide institutional channel, when San Quentin went on a shelter-in-place lockdown. That same day, he was moved from a cell to a dormitory area, which he shared with approximately 100 other people. 

His fear elevated in late May of 2020, when word went around the prison yard that men with COVID symptoms were transferred from Chino State Prison to San Quentin. In that moment, he knew he had to shed light on how the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) was endangering the lives of incarcerated people, the staff, and the public.

“The #StopSanQuentinOutbreak Coalition came together at the beginning of June to uplift the demands of folks inside facing COVID,” Chan said. “Loved ones with medical conditions and of an advanced age were in danger because there’s no way to social distance due to the overcrowded nature of all California prisons.”

According to a February 2021 report by the Inspector General of California, a COVID-19 outbreak at Chino prompted CDCR to transfer 122 medically vulnerable men to San Quentin on May 30. CDCR transferred them without up-to-date COVID-19 tests, some of which were conducted over three weeks prior to transfer. 

Buses that were supposed to carry 19 people for social distancing purposes ended up seating 25. Incarcerated men on the buses noticed that some individuals exhibited symptoms during the long ride to San Quentin, according to the report. 

“(T)he transfers were deeply flawed and risked the health and lives of thousands of incarcerated persons and staff,” said Inspector General Roy W. Wesley. “The decision to transfer the medically vulnerable incarcerated persons despite such outdated test results was … a conscious decision made by prison and CCHS (California Correctional Health Care Services) executives.”

Upon arrival, the Chino group was placed in a housing unit at San Quentin with open cell bars, no fresh air, and over 202 other incarcerated people. Several men who transferred in from Chino tested positive upon arrival at San Quentin.

San Quentin had no cases of Coronavirus amongst the incarcerated population prior to the transfer. Two weeks afterwards, COVID-19 infected hundreds.

On June 13, 2020, medical experts toured San Quentin and noted the conditions would lead to the rapid spread of infection because they involved exceedingly poor ventilation including windows welded shut, extraordinarily close living quarters, cells with open-air grills, and inadequate sanitation. The UCSF and Berkeley doctors warned prison officials that the population needed to be reduced by 50 percent (1,775 people) to get a handle on the outbreak.

“Quarantine isolation of patients at San Quentin and any prison is like a delicate game of chess,” Dr. Sears said at a public safety hearing. “California prisons are already over 100 percent of capacity and every square in that chessboard has one or two pieces already on it. This makes strategic movement of residents nearly impossible.”


Chan, trapped in a cage with a deadly virus and another six years on his 23-year sentence, used the one part of himself still free to advocate: his voice. Through a collect call phone on the wall of his dorm, he called friends and reported what was happening around him. 

An automated voice broke into the calls every few minutes with a warning: “This call and your phone number may be recorded or monitored.” Chan ignored the threats and through conversations with James King and Isabella Borgeson, strategy sessions turned into the #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition.

King works as a state campaigner for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. King met Chan while they were incarcerated together at San Quentin. They attended college classes together and both worked with Restore Justice, the organization founded by Adnan Khan and Alex Mallick. King wrote for Restore Justice while Chan produced videos for First Watch, its all incarcerated production program at the prison.

Isabella Borgeson, a poet who in 2015 performed at the COP21 climate change conference in France, has long been a friend of Chan’s. They met through their mothers, who worked together at Asian Health Services in Oakland’s Chinatown and became best friends. 

Borgeson left a six-figure salary job at Adobe to help out her sick mother in the Philippines and joined the coalition to get Chan and others out of prison. When COVID lockdown restrictions prevented her from flying back and forth to the Philippines, she remained in the Bay and focused on working with the coalition.

#StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition grew to include social justice organizations like The Ella Baker Center, Initiate Justice, Restore Justice, Asian Prisoner Support, as well as lawyers, loved ones of people in prison and incarcerated people themselves.

“It was very organic,” Chan said. “Our community became a coalition to respond to the crisis.”

Inside, Chan consulted with the population and came up with a list of demands. He forwarded that list to the world through a press conference.

“Basically, we had connections with people on the outside in the organizing space,” Chan said. “We were reporting on the transfers and needed to amplify our voices.”

Chan, another incarcerated guy named Kerry Rudd, and this reporter all participated in the press conference through collect calls to friends, who patched us into a Zoom call. Khan hosted the conference with several members of the press. The conference gave people behind the wall a chance to directly address the narrative that CDCR was doing everything it could to protect lives.

“The majority of us contracted COVID because of transfers,” Chan said. “There was no space for transfers. CDCR needs to seriously consider releasing folks because overcrowding was a problem before the pandemic.”

During the press conference, the coalition pleaded for the releases of elderly people who had already served decades in prison, warning that failure to do so would result in deaths. These voices were echoed in several news outlets like KTVU Fox News, The Appeal, The Marshall Project, The Marin Independent Journal, and The New York Times.

“There was a period of time where the state controlled the narrative but we created conditions where they were held accountable and they had to take responsibility,” Chan said.

King, who had otherwise shied away from media attention in prison, appeared on news shows advocating for the early releases to save lives.

King also spoke up for older incarcerated people at a California Senate Public Safety Committee Meeting chaired by Senator Nancy Skinner on July 1, 2020.

“I have not been able to stop thinking about my friend Freddy Cole,” King told the state senators. “He’s 70 years old. When I spoke to him in June, just as the outbreak was beginning, I heard the terror in his voice.”

Interfaith Vigil at San Quentin during COVID-19. Photo by Peg Hunter on Flickr.

Building Community Pressure

At the public safety hearings the head of CDCR, Ralph Diaz, and medical head, Clark Kelso, admitted to the botched transfers. Diaz resigned a few months later.

Early parole was granted to anyone incarcerated for a crime considered non-violent who was within six months of their release date. However, criteria limitations that barred crimes considered serious or violent kept San Quentin well above the 50 percent reduction point recommended by health care experts.

Elderly men served up under the three-strikes law to multiple life sentences for burglary were left to die under the exclusions.

As positive cases rose, administration segregation, known as the hold, was used to “quarantine” infected people until it was so full that positive cases were left in the same cells as negative cases. By August, 2,048 incarcerated people, three-fourths of the population, and 272 staff members contracted COVID-19.

The coalition tracked the deaths.

“Every day I checked the Coronavirus tracker and wondered who was gonna get a call that their loved one was gone,” Borgeson said.

In August, the #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition sent out a template, showing incarcerated people how to file for a COVID release in the state courts.

On October 20, 2020, the State Appellate Court issued an order to reduce the population at San Quentin by 50 percent (1,775 people). In reaching its decision, the court found that CDCR acted with “deliberate indifference to the risk of substantial harm to petitioner (Ivan Von Staich), a life prisoner whose age makes him vulnerable to COVID-19.” 

Von Staich had filed for a COVID release in May of 2020. In deciding his case, the court noted that it was “unlikely if not impossible” to reduce “by 50 percent without transferring or releasing some serving sentences for violent offenses.”

Additionally, the court suggested that releasing elderly low-risk people could be done without impacting public safety since many are in CDCR’s lowest risk category and have a less than one percent recidivism rate, according to a 2011 Stanford Criminal Justice Center study called “Life in Limbo: An Examination of Parole Release for Prisoners Serving Life Sentences with the Possibility of Parole in California.” (In re Staich 2020 Cal.App LEXIS 974*)

The state appellate court left it up to CDCR whether to follow their guidance or accomplish the population reduction through releases or transfers.The #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition immediately advocated for releases.

“Releases are the only safe and responsible way to protect people’s health in the midst of this pandemic,” the San Francisco Chronicle quoted King as having said. “There is no safe way to do mass transfers.”

CDCR appealed the decision to the California Supreme Court who sent the case back to the lower courts for an evidentiary hearing. The case could be appealed for years before the highest court makes a final binding decision.

The community wanted Chan home sooner so they requested that the Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley use her power under penal code 1170 to seek a 5-year sentence reduction.

“It’s important that someone like Adamu comes home because he’s going to reach back and create better and more equitable pathways to get others out,” Borgeson said. “He’s an innovative artist who always asks who is getting left behind in this work.”

Borgeson learned how to advocate for early releases from Ella Baker Center folks including Emily Harris and Elliot Hosman.

Borgeson prepared a letter requesting that O’Malley recommend a sentence reduction for Chan, targeting five years added to his term as a prior enhancement. Several community members, social justice organizations, elected officials, friends, and the Alameda County Public Defenders office signed on. The letter accompanied a packet that addressed the same questions in a commutation application. Borgeson was able to hand-deliver the packet during a meeting with O’Malley.

“It was very clear from the materials that (Chan) was someone that transformed himself over the years,” Borgeson said. “She recommended he get out now.”

O’Malley recommended Chan be sentenced to 12-and-a-half years time served, a year earlier even with good time, then expected or requested.

“I got my best friend back,” Borgeson said.

Chan was released from prison to a crowd of well-wishers.

“I don’t just credit my being out to myself,” Chan said. “I know there was a community of folks inside that contributed to my growth that I also want to be out. Getting out wasn’t my end goal. To me the fight doesn’t end until everyone comes home.” 

When Vaccinations Aren’t Enough

Chan got out without ever getting infected with COVID but many others weren’t so lucky. By late October, the death toll at San Quentin reached 29 people including one staff member.

Conditions have improved at San Quentin since then. As of this writing, N-95 masks are more readily available. Hand sanitizer dispensers are stationed around the prison at correction officers’ desks.

By May 2021, San Quentin reduced the population to 2,561 (according to an April-May 2021 San Quentin News) through a combination of a freeze on admissions, increased board decision grant rates, transfers, early releases of non-violent cases, and a few commutations, including some for medical reasons.

Additionally, San Quentin started vaccinating the population in February. By May, the entire population had been offered the vaccine.

Problems persist despite the improvements made. UCSF infectious diseases specialist Dr. Peter Chan-Hung recommends reaching an 80-85 percent vaccination mark for community immunity in a carceral setting. 

That 85 percent mark will be hard to reach because many still refuse to get vaccinated for various reasons. About 20 percent of those incarcerated at San Quentin declined the vaccine.

“I don’t trust these people,” Basher Aremu, an incarcerated Nigerian man, said. “Plus, they made the vaccine too fast.”

The percentage of staff refusing vaccination is higher than the incarcerated population—50 percent declined to get immunized, according to CDCR Vaccination Tracker from May 1, 2021.

Also in May, buses started transferring more incarcerated people to San Quentin, threatening population reduction gains that already fall 786 short of reaching the 50 percent reduction recommended by health experts.

CDCR did not respond to requests for comment.

Chan believes vaccinations shouldn’t stop decarceration.

“I don’t believe the vaccines makes us safe,” Chan said. “I want folks inside to get the vaccine but that won’t cure poverty, racism, overcrowding, underlying medical conditions, or a huge elderly population. The solution is decarceration because overcrowding is a public health hazard.”

Medical experts agree that “policy makers need to implement decarceration alongside priority vaccination in jails and prisons,” according to an article in The New England Journal of Medicine written by doctors Benjamin A. Barsky, Eric Reinhart, Paul Farmer, and Salmaan Keshavjee.

“(S)everal factors suggest that vaccination alone will not be enough to stop carceral outbreaks,” the doctors wrote. “It is mass incarceration itself that threatens public safety.”

San Quentin by Tom Hilton on Flickr.

The Scourge Of Overcrowding

Overcrowding has long been held by the federal courts to cause preventable deaths due to medical neglect in the California prison system. After over 17 years of litigation, a federal three judge panel determined that overcrowding prevented CDCR from providing adequate medical care and caused unnecessary deaths, ordering population reductions.

The United State Supreme Court affirmed the decision. The federal courts order for CDCR to reduce its prison system to 137.5 percent of design capacity became binding.

At the time, the prison system held nearly 180,000 people, almost double the design capacity. CDCR had people sleeping in gyms on triple bunks to accommodate the numbers. It took until 2015 for CDCR to reach the benchmark reduction of 137.5 percent of design capacity.

As the court battles raged until 2015, people died of preventable medical issues. For years, CDCR officials knowingly transferred high risk medical people into harm’s way of Valley Fever: the soil-borne spores of Coccidioides, a fungus that attacks the lungs common in Central Valley.

An internal memo dated Aug. 3, 2006, warned California prison officials about the risk Valley Fever posed and instructed them to transfer high risk incarcerated people – those with HIV, chronic medical conditions, African-Americans and Asians – immediately from institutions in the San Joaquin Valley. 

For seven years CDCR kept transferring people classified as high risk to Central Valley prisons plagued by the disease.

Between 2008-2011, 355 incarcerated people required hospitalization and, from 2006-2011, 34 people, mostly Black, died, according to an LA Times article by Paige St. John. 

“The state of California has known since 2006 that segments of the inmate population were at a greater risk for contracting Valley Fever, and mitigation efforts undertaken by CDCR to date have proven ineffective,” said Joyce Hayhoe, a spokeswoman for the Federal receiver’s office that took over medical, according to an Associate Press article by Don Thompson.

History is repeating. As the current COVID-19 court proceedings rage on, people are still dying at San Quentin. Since the official COVID-19 numbers stopped at 29, at least five more people have died from reasons ranging from cancer, strokes, and other health issues.

Additionally, a 28-year-old is suspected of killing his 66-year-old cellie, according to KPIX CBS news report on March 3. According to some incarcerated people, the two were thrown together to be cellmates in order to make room for new people coming in to quarantine. The young Black man with mental illness and the old White man complained of being incompatible but were left celled together until the fatal moment.

Pushing For Mass Release

Medical deaths aren’t new to San Quentin. In the last eight years, the prison has had several quarantine lockdowns for viruses including Legionnaires’ disease, the chicken pox, flu, and the norovirus. A December 2016 San Quentin newspaper includes a memoriam showing the faces of 18 men who died within a year from medical causes or old age. At least five look quite young.

In May of 2021, even after all the improvements at San Quentin, West Block went on two norovirus quarantine lockdowns. The second one lasted until June 6.

“Folks inside called it months before the COVID outbreak happened,” Chan said. “It will happen again.

Chan views the coalition as having had a huge impact.

“People inside learned a lot about what they can say with the support of community,” Chan said. “We learned there is safety in numbers and how to build bridges across the walls.”

Chan added, “And the conversation has changed around incarceration. More people are understanding how harmful policing and incarceration is and how caging potential is a crime to society.”

The #StopSanQuentinOutbreak is still fighting for mass releases.

“We’re sending out tool kits for the one year anniversary and commissioning artists and writers to produce a ‘zine to document what happened and why we’re calling for releases,” Borgeson said. “We’ll keep calling for releasing 50 percent of the population.”

On May 24, members of the coalition supported a vigil for those who lost their lives to COVID-19, hosted by the Inner Faith Movement for Human Integrity. It took place at the main gate to San Quentin. 

“This is the second vigil and this time we planned how we could take politics out of it,” Chan said. “We were holding space for healing and recognizing what happened.”

Chan has received a grant to produce a documentary about the relationships that became a movement during the pandemic to fight what he calls state violence. 

“COVID-19 was a dress rehearsal for CDCR – there will be other variants,” Chan said. “CDCR fell short and we will continue to hold them accountable for that because it’s not over.”

And Chan is right. The Alpine section of San Quentin went on lockdown due to COVID-19 as of August 10. Four days later, North Block went on a “precautionary” lockdown due to three positive COVID cases within a 14 day period, according to an official report from prison officials. 

During lockdown, buses continued to transfer more incarcerated people to San Quentin.

Rahsaan Thomas

Rahsaan Thomas

Rahsaan Thomas is a contributing writer for The Marshall Project, San Quentin News, and Current. He is also a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, and a director of short films. Most people know him as "New York," a co-host and co-producer of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated podcast, Ear Hustle.