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In San Quentin, COVID-19 Prevention No Match For Crowded And Poorly Ventilated Housing

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

In the months since COVID-19 wreaked havoc inside California’s 35 prisons and claimed 240 incarcerated lives, practically nothing has been done to address the crowded and poorly ventilated housing units that have helped the virus spread.

At San Quentin State Prison, COVID-19 infected three-quarters of its incarcerated residents and dozens required hospitalization. It killed 28 prisoners and a correctional sergeant, prompting a court to call the incident the “worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history” last October.

A near full-scale shutdown from March 2020 to May 2021 didn’t thwart the virus’ disastrous effect on San Quentin residents. The deaths took place while prisoners spent more than 23-hours-a-day locked inside their cells with two people assigned to each one. They ate their meals in their cells and were only let out every other day for 90 minutes. Then, they could shower in one of the racially segregated community showers, and/or go to the prison yard, and/or make a 15-minute telephone call, if sign-up slots were available. 

The only exceptions were furniture factory workers, kitchen workers, hospital janitors, and housing unit porters – an estimated 100-150 people. Besides getting out of their cells regularly, the employed prisoners received daily showers and phone calls, as well as the ability to earn meager wages of between .08 cents and $1.00-per-hour.

Yet, inside the housing units, phone banks, pill lines, and hallways remained high traffic areas.

During the shutdown, prison officials implemented a “Surge Mitigation and Management plan.” It involved putting tents on the prison grounds, as well as opening up the churches and sections of the furniture factory to provide additional bed space for medical treatment and to extend social distancing. 

The plan increased testing, contact tracing, and called for isolating COVID-19 infected prisoners in one of the facility’s 98 cells with a solid door. It also provided an unlimited supply of N-95 masks and surgical face coverings for every prisoner and guard. But it did not address the chronic overcrowding by identifying prisoners for release, nor did it seek to renovate the enclosed and poorly ventilated housing units.

Prison officials contend that since the outbreak is over, and San Quentin is getting vaccinated (87 percent of prisoners and 60 percent of staff) there is no need to reduce the population.

After May, the claustrophobic and dusty housing units reopened to allow prisoners access to limited rehabilitative services, such as adult education, vocational training, and substance abuse programs. But by August, the delta variant made its way inside and plunged the prison back into another shutdown.

It’s under these circumstances that the incarcerated residents have to deal with adversities, such as watching a cellmate die, or pre-existing mental health problems, or prepare for a parole hearing after serving more than two decades on a life sentence. Some face deportation even if they secure release.


Alan Mabrey, 57, spent eight of the 12 years he’s been incarcerated at San Quentin. He’s housed in North Block (NB), a stuffy, pigeon-infested building with its windows welded shut.

The unit has 414 cells stacked five tiers high. Each cell measures about four feet wide and 10 feet long, roughly the size of a parking space. Metal-frame bunk beds are in the cells and storage lockers are bolted to the walls. Each cell has a stainless steel sink and toilet. Open bars cover the front side of the windowless cells.

On July 1, 2020, Mabrey’s cellmate John Stevens, died in their cell from COVID-19.

“John had no way to protect himself,” Mabrey said. “We both took all the precautions, but because of overpopulation and poor ventilation, John lost his life.” He added, “What we went through was atrocious. There was no compassion on how John was treated. That was despicable.”

Stevens was 72-years-old when he died.

Mabrey said within a few days, a new person showed up at his front door.

“I still had John’s stuff in there. The [corrections officers] hadn’t even come and get John’s property,” Mabrey said. “I didn’t have a choice. Luck as have it, we were compatible. We get along as well as two men could in a cell not big enough to hold a dog.”

As of September 8, 635 prisoners occupied NB’s 414 cells. Prison officials have not indicated that they plan to prevent double-celling of COVID positive and COVID negative prisoners.

Mabrey later reflected on how he and Stevens were treated. “The warden needs to have more insight into what’s happening in this prison.”


NB also houses dozens of prisoners with mental illness.

Alex Ross, 54, has been incarcerated 27 years, residing in NB for about five years. Since the beginning of his incarceration, he’s struggled with a germ phobia. He says he’s prescribed anxiety medication, but doesn’t like “feeling drowsy.”

He also struggles with the pill line because seeing diabetic patients receive injections makes him anxious.

“The person in front of me who takes a diabetic shot leaves bloody cotton balls around. That makes the space look messy. Then, I’d have to go to that same nurse for a pill,” Ross said. 

“I ask myself how being too clean can be a problem,” Ross said. “So, when I hear a cellie say they don’t like to smell bleach or disinfectant, that’s a red flag for me. If a cellie gets irritated about me wiping and keeping clean, I get irritated about that and it leads to conflict. I may not be the neatest person, but I take germs seriously.”

Over the decades, Ross has had more than two dozen cellmates — most he’s asked to move. He’s only felt compatible with a few. 

Since he’s been in San Quentin, he’s had seven cellmates.

“Now that I’m in the cell by myself, I can think clearer,” Ross said.


For Carlos Ramirez, 43, doing the work necessary to show the parole board he’s ready for release is challenging. 

Ramirez has been incarcerated for 24 years under California’s Three Strikes Law. He’s been housed in NB for 11 years.

“I’m working on centering myself,” Ramirez said as he reflected on appearing before the parole board for the second time in less than two years. 

When a person is denied a release date by a Californbia parole board, three years is the shortest amount of time for the person’s next appearance. Fifteen years is the longest. There are circumstances, however, when the board uses its discretion to call a person back to a hearing before then.

Previously, Ramirez was denied parole for possessing contraband. The board ordered him to take classes on “criminal thinking” and victim impact. He began the classes and enrolled in a computer literacy program. But the shutdown stopped all in-class programs at San Quentin. He continued rehabilitating himself by enrolling in correspondence courses. The board recognized his efforts and called him back early.

“The programs will help me be prepared to get out of there and how to live a productive life and integrate into society,” Ramirez said.

A native of El Salvador, Ramirez knows if he’s released from prison, he’s subject to deportation.

He says he knows he broke the law and must pay a consequence, but says he’s not the same person he was 24 years ago. He’d like a second chance at staying in the U.S.

“I fled El Salvador because of the war and violence,” Ramirez said. Thinking about getting deported stresses him. 

“I will be found suitable because the board knows that since I’ve been incarcerated, I’ve changed to be a better person,” Ramirez said.

He’s torn between going back to El Salvador to care for his elderly father as opposed to staying in the U.S. to be away from war and violence.

“My dad is 93 and I’d like to go home and take care of him and my family. I can work in a restaurant or in construction,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez was found suitable for parole in July, yet he continues to struggle with what to do next.

Witnessing friends die, dealing with mental health issues, completing programs to show that a person is ready for release or deportation are some of the challenges that prisoners must undergo at San Quentin during the Age of COVID-19—all stressors that are compounded by overcrowding.

Juan Moreno Haines

Juan Moreno Haines

Juan Moreno Haines, an incarcerated journalist, has been a member of the Society of Professional Journalists since 2015. In 2017, SPJ awarded him its Silver Heart for being a voice for the voiceless. In 2020, the California News Publishers Association awarded him a first place prize for coverage of the pandemic fallout.