As COVID-19 Raged, Incarcerated Journalists Fought Isolation And Illness To Expose Abusive Conditions
In the summer of 2020 we launched a collaborative writing program to connect incarcerated writers with outside journalists and editors. Our goal was to help them publish their writing in mainstream media publications.
We began only a few weeks after COVID-19 came into San Quentin State Prison, where Rahsaan lives. We knew that COVID-19 would be an incredible threat to people incarcerated, but were unprepared for the devastation and loss ahead. At San Quentin — which became home to the largest outbreak in the country — Rahsaan became infected with the virus and experienced the mental health toll of being locked in a cell, 24 hours a day, for days at a time. With a total of 2,607 confirmed cases, 29 people died.
Across the country, over 397,422 incarcerated people were infected and at least 2,700 died. But the story goes far beyond that loss: COVID-19 inside U.S. prisons was marked by outright indifference for basic pandemic safety protocols, facility crowding, the use of segregation to “treat” people with COVID-19, and many other injustices.
Through it all, however, the writing persisted. In the early months of our program, called the Empowerment Avenue Writer’s Cohort, a team of volunteers on the outside rapidly transcribed hand-written and typed writing and reporting about San Quentin’s ever-worsening outbreak. (There is no internet or email access from the inside, so the digital transcription, pitching, and email correspondence must be handled by people on the outside.) Correctional officers confirmed Rahsaan’s COVID-19 infection on the night of July 2; the next day he wrote an essay about the experience that was published on Insider. His colleague Juan Haines reported from inside the hole during his own COVID-19 infection.
As our program grew, so did the storytelling. Incarcerated writers from elsewhere in California, Washington State, Ohio, and New York reported what they saw for publications like Insider, The Washington Post, Huff Post, Slate, Jewish Currents, Il Manifesto, and Elle Magazine. They’ve continued writing about the impact of the pandemic even after vaccinations — including a return to prison crowding, hesitations around vaccines, limitations in reuniting with loved ones, and the overwhelming psychological toll.
Because Rahsaan doesn’t have access to digital media, Emily printed out each article and mailed it to his cell. We also collaborated on an extensive survey about COVID-19 — which 16 Empowerment Avenue writers around the country responded to — to further understand their experience navigating the pandemic. Their reporting and survey responses revealed they faced horrible conditions that were eerily similar despite location or facility security level. They just didn’t get the same level of media attention as San Quentin.
To us, it has never been clearer that conditions in prisons must change to prevent more unnecessary deaths and illnesses. Having access to data, storytelling, and reporting from Empowerment Avenue writers around the country underscores that those changes need to be implemented nationwide. Below, we provide a summary of what went horribly wrong.
Empowerment Avenue was born of this pandemic — but that doesn’t mean our writers, or anyone incarcerated, deserves to die from a variant outbreak or the next deadly virus.
Punished for Being Sick
“ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, FIVE, TURN . . . One, two, three, four, five, turn . . . Pacing back and forth in the six-by-ten foot cell, LJ, a prisoner at Washington’s Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC), counts each step in an attempt to mask his mounting frustration and retain his sanity.” These are the words of Christopher Blackwell, who published the first piece supported by Empowerment Avenue for Jewish Currents on September 1, 2020. “He’s trying to process the fact that he has been placed in solitary confinement for medical reasons three times in the months since Covid-19 struck MCC, where he and I are both incarcerated.”
The story is aptly titled, “When Tourture is a Health Precaution.” As Christopher points out, the use of solitary confinement increased an estimated 500 percent across the country—with about 300,000 people placed in solitary confinement during the first three months of COVID-19—as “Departments of Corrections use a practice that has been internationally recognized as torture as a stand-in for a safe and humane means of quarantine.”
At San Quentin, Rahsaan and thousands of others were trapped inside a 5- by 8-foot cell with another individual. As Rahsaan chronicled for 48 Hills in February, “At San Quentin Prison, Daniel Kramer and others lived in extreme fear of contracting COVID from their cellmates.” The virus rapidly spread within the crowded housing units, and the “solution” was to send people into solitary confinement. As Juan Haines reported at the time, the inhumane conditions in the hole led to a hunger strike.
Many Empowerment Avenue participants were scared to report COVID-19 symptoms because being sick meant going to the hole. “You can call it the hole, but they go to a unit and, from what I heard from others that’s been there, it’s dirty and they are treated inhumanely,” writer Darla told us from a California women’s prison. “So a lot of people who may have symptoms are reluctant to speak up because of the mistreatment.” Ryan, a writer in Florida, was on 14-day quarantine during the time of our survey — his prison restarted the quarantine three times in a row, which meant he was isolated for 32 days.
Felix, a writer and social justice advocate incarcerated in Washington State, had a similar experience. “I know some folks who reported symptoms a few months ago when my facility had our outbreak,” he said. “Those guys were taken to the hole that was converted into a makeshift medical isolation unit. They were definitely treated as if they had done something wrong. The
way they were treated did not encourage people to report their symptoms at all.”
Inadequate COVID-19 safety protocols and healthcare
Almost all of the writers surveyed reported inadequate, dysfunctional, or terrible COVID responses by correctional officers and staff. At San Quentin, the Inspector General of California found that California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation medical officials disregarded safety protocols during the transfer of people infected with COVID-19. And even though the prison boasts a $136 million healthcare facility, as Adamu Chan pointed out in Slate, it didn’t translate to effective healthcare as infection rates exploded.
In Washington State, Christopher Blackwell wrote about his own facility ignoring safety protocols and transferring new people into his facility for TruthOut. In December, for Jewish Currents, he outlined how his prison continued to flout public health guidelines: they hadn’t received new masks in months, even as correctional staff were lax in wearing theirs; transfers continued; people were getting double and triple bunked inside small cells.
In Ohio, writer Michael Ray described his surroundings for il Manifesto: “Wet coughing and wheezes filled the air. I walked down the aisle to use the bathroom and passed by men lying miserably in their bunks, a mere three inches of mattress separating them from hard steel frames.”
When we surveyed other Empowerment Avenue writers, the responses were just as bleak.
“It eventually got to the point where basic medical treatment was being denied and if you weren’t touching death, bleeding excessively or experiencing symptoms, you weren’t being seen,” said Oltehus, incarcerated in Ohio.
“The most medical attention we got was daily temperature check.” Traci told us from California. Jennifer, also incarcerated in California, was “initially denied COVID-19 tests from March to June 2020.”
“Early on, CO’s and medical staff here were disregarding prisoners’ cries for medical assistance,” Brian noted from a New York facility. “Many prisoners exhibiting listed symptoms were sent back to their cubes to languish.”
Crowding laid the groundwork for the explosive virus outbreak at San Quentin, as Juan Haines reported for the Appeal. But the prison was hardly an outlier. Eleven of our writers described their facility as crowded or full. The majority added that social distancing and quarantining were “impossible.”
Michele Scott described her daily morning routine for Elle Magazine: “I have to go to breakfast to get food. This requires walking between a gauntlet of staff who are clustered on both sides of a narrow sidewalk leading to the chow hall. I note that many of their masks are carelessly dangling off their chin.”
In our surveying, responses hit a similar note. Patrick in New York said, “The structure of every prison I have been in makes it impossible to safely guard against any contagious disease, whether viral or bacterial,” Brian, also in New York, wrote, “New York State prisons aren’t designed to handle outbreaks of any kind.” Felix in Washington said, “No, the prison can not protect us… and has not. We all got sick.”
At San Quentin, in the cell block where Rahsaan is housed, the population for 409 cells was 813 in September of 2020. In March of 2021, North Block’s population was 550, still leaving some people double celled, including Rahsaan’s. This April, Rahssan wrote an op-ed for High Country News wondering if COVID-19 vaccinations would only mean more prison crowding deaths.
“Despite all the deaths, the population of North Block, where I am housed, remains over design capacity,” wrote Rahsaan. “History teaches us that overcrowding spreads disease. If California does not immediately release more people, the coronavirus vaccines may turn California prisons back into overcrowded petri dishes, with prisoners like me awaiting the next deadly viral outbreak.”
There were no accountability processes inside prison facilities, which only increased the urgency of sharing stories about the pandemic from within prison with the public. As Christopher Blackwell emphasized in HuffPost, “we are dependent on government systems to care for our health and well-being.” But as those systems broke down, there was nowhere incarcerated people could go for help.
The uselessness of the prison grievance process — touted by prison administrations as an accountability tool — is a prime example. The majority of Empowerment Avenue writers said that filing grievances about lapses in COVID-19 safety were largely ignored. “Grievances are a joke,” said Brian in New York. “The appeal process is a joke,” said Al in California. “Even the emergency appeals were not being handled.”
Christopher summed it up to us thusly: “They are a complete waste of time and if one doesn’t plan to file a lawsuit there is no reason to even waste your time going through the process.”
Today buses are rolling into San Quentin, transferring more people despite a positive COVID-19 case found in North Block, according to a July 12, 2021 memo from California Correctional Health Care Services. In May, the prison’s West Block was locked down twice for norovirus quarantines.
Twenty-nine people — 28 incarcerated and one correctional officer — are said to have died during San Quentin’s outbreak. But there’s still uncertainty and silence from prison administrations. When Rahsaan wrote about the death of Mike Hampton for High Country News, for example, we couldn’t find any official statement or cause of death from the administration, even though Rahsaan knew “COVID-19 snatched his life months before his scheduled parole board hearing.”
Al, a writer incarcerated alongside Rahsaan at San Quentin, told us, “Twenty-eight people have died, but I suspect the number is higher — these people lie!”
Many writers relied on rumors or word of mouth to understand the loss that surrounded them: “I didn’t lose no one close, but rumor is that three died,” said Demetrius in Michigan. “Has anyone died? No info,” Jessica told us from Washington.
One of the gravest long-standing issues concerns mental health. Writers suffered greatly from the stress and anxiety of COVID-19, not seeing or speaking to loved ones, not having access to programs, and not receiving any semblance of mental health care. A number of writers told us their prison relied on surface-level “mental health checks.”
“We live in four-day chunks of dread — the length of time it takes to get our COVID-19 test results,” Michele Scott wrote for Elle. “Each time, we fear learning that someone in our room has tested positive; it’s like living a game of Russian Roulette. We’re haunted by the specter of a positive test, of whose room will be relocated to the quarantine unit next.”
“This has dramatically impacted my mental health,” said Noel from Washington State. “I haven’t seen my family in over a year. Everything that was good in prison or kept people focused was gone.” Jennifer, in Washington, told us, “Anxiety. PTSD. Panic. No mental health care has been provided, other than wellness checking in the spring of 2020 (and) those were stopped!”
Brian, in New York, simply said: “Need I laugh. What care? Quick to drug you and make money off you thereafter.”
Rahsaan was particularly impacted by the extended lockdown, which he detailed for Popula: “Each tier gets yard separately every other day for 90 minutes. During the time, we also get one phone call and a chance to shower. There are ten showers and 12 phones for about 100 people to use in that time frame. Somehow, I squeeze in a workout, phone call and shower before having to lock up for another 40-something hours.”
His body still holds the long term effects of COVID-19. His nose has been congested since July of 2020, making breathing labored and exercise harder. Wearing a heart monitor revealed an irregular heartbeat that needs to be shocked back into compliance. The ghosts of dead friends haunt his thoughts everytime he walks past the cells they once inhabited or the spot on the yard where they worked out. There are invisible scars to wear for the rest of his life.
Telling Our Story — from Rahsaan Thomas
I had to do something. Workers in the receiving room told us of men, with COVID symptoms, getting off a bus from Chino State Prison. As the virus spread, I was hearing alarms blaring and medical staff running to aid another incarcerated man downed by COVID. Six feet trapped in a cell block with a deadly virus, I had to let the world know what was going on so the prison system could be held accountable.
We were dropping like flies and several men would never get up again. Writing was an act of self defense and Empowerment Avenue my weapon.
Normally people in prison serving life sentences edit their own tongues. That’s because, despite freedom of speech, our physical freedom is discretionary. Piss off the wrong person and you may never go home.
This time was different. Catching COVID-19, the hole so packed with people “quarantined,” we remained in place, infected celled with negative cases, positive and negative neighbors, seeing men carried out barely breathing, made it feel like I had nothing to lose. You have to be alive to go home. I exercised my freedom of speech without restraint, while COVID weakened my body, ranting in Business Insider like it could be my last words.
My voice joined a chorus across the nation. We found safety in numbers and matching accounts.
We garnered attention. The world turned its attention to prisons across the nation, especially San Quentin. We were heard.