Our print edition of this article used the word inmates instead of incarcerated people. Learn about why the change is important at The Marshall Project
Last July, San Quentin State Prison was home to one of the nation’s most severe coronavirus outbreaks, which killed 28 prisoners and one staff member. In January, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began distributing vaccinations to the men inside, many of whom are still traumatized by the outbreak, suffering from an extended, one-year lockdown, and distrustful of medical treatment from the state.
It was under these circumstances that the men in blue grappled with their feelings on vaccinations and what it would mean for the future of San Quentin State Prison following “the worst epidemiological disaster in California correctional history,” as a state appeals court deemed. A survey conducted by myself, an incarcerated journalist, and my incarcerated reporting colleague Kevin Deroi Sawyer, polled 209 of the approximately 1,500 general population prisoners housed in San Quentin’s North and West Blocks.
178 prisoners responded between Jan. 25 and Feb. 15, sharing thoughts that ranged from willingness to receive a vaccine and return to rehabilitative, educational and workforce programs; hesitation while people outside remain unvaccinated; and apprehension of prison medical care.
Among these opinions, there’s a concern commonly shared inside: that the rush to vaccinate prisoners is also an attempt to avoid significantly decarcerating the long-overcrowded prison. Last fall, a judge ruled that the CDCR must release or transfer half of San Quentin’s population, a directive that has since been on hold.
The department of corrections prioritized “COVID-naive patients who have the highest risk of serious consequences from COVID-19,” according to a Jan. 29 newsletter produced by prison officials. It continued that prison officials are “working with the California Department of Public Health to determine who can be offered the vaccine next.”
“COVID-naive” refers to the people at San Quentin who never tested positive for the virus, which infected at least two-thirds of the population. (The CDC recommends that people who have recovered from COVID-19 should still receive the vaccine.) John Gillies, 57, and Harry Goodall, 45, took the first of two vaccinations under this category. Goodall said he’s been tested 22 times for coronavirus, “ever since July.” They’ve all come back negative.
“A rationally minded individual would deduce his health and safety interest to take the vaccine,” said Goodall, incarcerated 22 years. “It’s impossible to socially distance inside San Quentin State Prison.” Gillies, who’s been incarcerated 13 years, said that “I don’t know how I remained COVID free … I did the same program as everyone else.”
North Block (414 cells) and West Block (449 cells) are enclosed and unventilated buildings. The windows are welded shut. Each building has five tiers of windowless cells that are roughly four-feet wide and 10-feet long — smaller than the average parking space. Two people are assigned to each cell. Since March 2020, the majority of prisoners have been locked inside their cells for more than 23 hours a day.
74 percent of survey respondents said they will take the vaccine, with eleven respondents under the age of 65 reporting they’ve already taken at least one vaccination shot. James Benson, 65-years-old, has been incarcerated 23 years. He took the first of two vaccinations. “I took it because I’m concerned about my welfare and those around me,” Benson said. “Based on the fact that CDCR has shown ‘deliberate indifference’ about my welfare, I was infected with coronavirus.”
Benson referred to the state appellate court order to half San Quentin’s population after the administration was found to show “deliberate indifference” in the botched transfer of men from an already-infected prison. Since then, men have been in limbo as far as how the CDCR may adhere to court rulings. The case is currently up in the air in the California Supreme Court.
A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled “Vaccination plus Decarceration — Stopping Covid-19 in Jails and Prisons” stated that “several factors suggest that vaccination alone will not be enough to stop carceral outbreaks.” The article points out how the significant churn of people in and out of prisons and jails creates an ongoing risk for COVID-19.
“We should anticipate high rates of vaccine hesitancy among staff and especially among incarcerated people, who have been offered little to no educational material about Covid-19 vaccines and have abundant reasons for distrust, given U.S. carceral facilities’ long-standing violations of basic human rights and histories of abuse,” the article noted.
That distrust is evident inside San Quentin. “I’m concerned about trusting San Quentin, given what’s happened here,” said 43-year-old Miguel Sifuentes. He shares a cell with another prisoner. “Several of our friends have died and all of us have lived under terrible circumstances [San Quentin prison officials] created over 11 months.”
Asked if he would accept a vaccination for coronavirus, Sifuentes said, “Perhaps. On the no side, because it’s new, like the artificial RNA component. It’s not natural. In addition, I’m concerned about the variants and reinfection. It’s not like we’re immune forever, just because we got infected. On the flip side, I’d take it to have programs [at the prison] and to see my family.”
Sifuentes takes issue in that no prison official has been held accountable. “It’s hard to trust that they have our best interest at heart,” Sifuentes said. “They still have 700 people in West Block, stacked on top of each other, but they want me to take a vaccine.”
Kevin Sample, 55-years-old, has been incarcerated 24 years. He said he has no immediate plan to take the vaccine. “I don’t trust the system or the science,” Sample said. He described “the system” as the prison administration and its medical department. He said his mistrust of the science comes from inadequate healthcare services in his underserved neighborhood where he grew up.
There were other reasons men didn’t want to take a vaccine.
Kenny Rogers, 63, who has been incarcerated 13 years and takes the seasonal influenza shot “religiously, every year,” said he’ll decline because he has antibodies. “Why waste the vaccine on someone who has active antibodies, instead of older people who need it?,” he wrote. “I trust God’s protection. I’ve had COVID, lived and trust my antibodies.”
Reginal Thorpe contracted the virus and has not been vaccinated due to his concern for others receiving it first. “I refuse to get a vaccination before people in society who make appointments, wait in long lines for hours upon hours to be told they cannot get vaccinated that day or people who need the vaccine more than I do,” Thorpe said. “I want to get vaccinated, but I do not believe I need to be vaccinated.”
Some men trust in the process — and expressed a strong desire to return to programming and family visits. “I got vaccinated because I believe the science,” said Gillies. “Vaccinations done in the past for other diseases saved lives, and I believe the COVID vaccination will save lives,” he said, adding “I want to get back to normal program.”
A recent San Quentin newsletter reminded prisoners the impact of COVID-19 on their lives is far from over: “Today, experts still do not know what percentage of people need to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to be confident that a community is protected,” it said. “Continue to stay proactive in keeping yourselves and each other safe from transmission.”
Juan Moreno Haines and Kevin Deroi Sawyer are professional journalists incarcerated in San Quentin. This report was funded by the Akonadi Foundation.