“East Block” – A survivor at San Quentin prison in California speaks

Word spread quickly among the condemned inmates on the East Block: “The guys from Chino brought in the virus.” [Red.: Inmates in the triple-digit number had been transferred untested to San Quentin from the prison in the California town of Chino, which was a Corona hotspot. ] I didn’t think twice about staying in my cell, staying out of the yard, thinking if I got it, I can’t imagine the hospital going out of its way to save a condemned prisoner when it’s packed with citizens who are seriously ill. On top of that, I know how the prison staff is working overtime, how they are deployed to every department at San Quentin. And if one of them gets it, it’s going to spread like a brush fire throughout the jail because, simply put, no one knows exactly how the virus spreads, but we know it’s highly contagious.

I looked out the window and shook my head. I see the convicts in the yard going about their lives as if it were a day like any other. Basketball players shoot hoops, cards are slapped on the double head table. The sound of dominoes crashing on another table while others crowd around the chess table, together analyzing the strategies of two players competing against each other. In the gymnastics crew, everyone is lined up, counting and doing push-ups together; the muscle guys strut around the parallel bars after each set with their chests out, laughing, joking, and competing amicably to see who can do the most bar push-ups or pull-ups – I’m one of them. The gossips all huddle together, catching each other up on the latest news. Prison attorneys argue the finer points of law as they share motions, cases and verdicts with their audience to make their point. Artists show off their artwork trying to make a buck, and throughout the day we all trade food from our lunches with each other – most opening the package right there and eating without a second thought.

Corona outbreak in San Quentin

The next day, the alarm went off while the staff was handing out our breakfast trays when they found someone unresponsive and quickly determined that this was our first covid case at the jail. Days go by, and all you hear is when the alarm goes off, as if Covid is the newest member on death row, infecting most of the East Block, where 540 men live. There were so many infected that they couldn’t take them anywhere to isolate them, there was no place for them because it ran through the whole prison. One of my closest friends here, who almost died in the hospital, had to wait 30 minutes gasping for breath because all the emergency medical personnel were busy elsewhere. Our regular correctional staff was missing more and more often. It later became apparent that they were infected as well, and the words echoing in the media, “We’re all in this together,” became increasingly clear.

The East Block, normally filled with laughter, arguing, lying, bantering, singing, and staff yelling instructions over the loudspeakers, came to a halt. It became silent, eerily silent, and the only sound heard was that of the sick, which was basically everyone, coughing non-stop like I had never heard before, followed by vomiting, but not normal vomiting, but mucus pouring from their lungs.

Deadly silence

It was the silence that got to me. It brought me back to the reality of being on death row. I remember that sound, or rather lack of sound, coupled with the nervous energy with which the prison was filled as we hoped one of our comrades would get a stay of execution, only to feel an icy chill down our spines when we heard that instead, at 12:01 a.m., the lethal injection was injected into his veins.[Editor: California has the largest death row in the U.S. with over 700 inmates, but has not executed anyone since 2006.]

After an execution, everyone deals seriously with their appeal and looks for a way to get an annulment and thus get off death row; and I resolutely follow everything the health authorities have recommended as well as my own special precautions to avoid this deadly disease.

Hygiene measures

I have covered the front of my cell with plastic and plugged the rear vent. I refuse to come out for anything or to take the plastic off, not even for the medical staff to take my vital signs. I often say, “If you can do it from 6 feet away, I will.” Everything that came into my cell I wiped with disinfectant, and if I couldn’t wipe it, I put it in “quarantine” for 3 days – mail and all. The food I received, I put on the edge of the bed and opened it, washed my hands twice, put the food in a bowl, put the food containers in a bag next to the door, washed my hands again, and then disinfected the edge of my bed. I stopped sending my laundry outside, but washed it myself. I stopped accepting anything from my buddies who often tried to send me their food because they couldn’t eat themselves, or who sent me a magazine they had in the mail. When I use the phone, I disinfect it thoroughly, then put a sock over the receiver while talking to my family through a mask.

Today, after about 30 deaths, talking to those hospitalized, as well as those experienced with late effects, I maintain my vigilance, even after receiving 11 negative test results, and to tell the truth, I don’t know if I’m just not symptomatic, lucky, or if it was because of all my efforts that I never contracted Covid-19. When there will be a reliable vaccination, I don’t know, but I do know how to distance myself socially, wear my mask, wash my hands, disinfect everything that comes into my cell, and put myself in “quarantine” to avoid catching it in the first place.

Life on death row is like a Corona infection

You know, one of the questions I get asked most often is, “What is it like to live on Death Row ?” To be honest, I never knew how to answer that, but now I can easily say it’s like the Corona virus. If you test positive, you have to isolate yourself; then experiencing the various symptoms is like living on death row every day, it’s uncomfortable, lonely and sometimes downright depressing. Going to the hospital and being hooked up to machines is like being taken to the Death Watch cell in preparation for execution while hoping your lawyers can get a stay at the U.S. Supreme Court so you can live another day. And being put into a coma in the ICU is like being strapped to the couch in the death chamber with a needle filled with poison in your arm, praying that the governor will call to issue a last-minute reprieve, but deep down you know this is the end…

A survivor of the East Block:
Joseph Kekoa Manibusan, October 2020


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