San Quentin prison becomes COVID-19 hot spot, conditions described as version of hell

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. -- San Quentin State Prison is the last place anyone would want to live, even on the best of days. During this pandemic, those inside describe conditions now as a version of hell.

"He's scared. I'm scared for him," said Loraine Hernandez about her incarcerated son.

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"I am just really concerned that my friends are caught in a petri dish," added James King, who left San Quentin in December.

They're two of more than a dozen people who spoke with us about the coronavirus hot zone inside San Quentin. Most are friends and family.

"A prison built in the 1850s is not equipped to deal with a global pandemic," said James.

According to the California Department of Corrections, San Quentin had been virus-free in late May before a transfer of inmates here from Chino, where there had been an outbreak.

Later, 15 of those transfers tested positive for COVID-19. By then, it was too late.

On Monday afternoon, state figures show the prison passing through 300 cases, including at least 30 staff members.

"How are they being responsible? Transferring people from an infected prison to one with no cases?" asked Loraine Hernandez. "How is it not their fault? It is spreading like wildfire in there."

"Since the global coronavirus pandemic hit our community, the department has worked tirelessly to implement measures to protect staff, the incarcerated population, and community at large," said the Department of Corrections in a statement.

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Inmates believe that with an overcrowded population, the state should be doing more. "The cells are 4 by 9 feet. Getting 6 feet is impossible," said James.

Friends and family describe how the prison has packed those with the virus into tight quarters. "They;re just leaving them. Take their temperature once a day and give them Tylenol and that's it," said Loraine Hernandez.

Critics cling to one solution. "There is only one way to flatten the curve," said James. "Bring the numbers down. Send people home. Until they do that, they are not doing everything they can. The numbers do not lie."

"My husband has immune deficiencies," said Tammy McGee from her home. "I worry that I may never see him alive, again."

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