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San Quentin Prisoners Are Dying - It Takes A Village Acts To Help

Updated: Jul 15, 2020

Boy Scout Troop 11 with Mike Pedersen, Correctional Health Services Administrator II, San Quentin

By Phillip Chin, founder and writer for Motus News (

SAN QUENTIN, CA. — Out of the more than 2.9 million coronavirus cases (a number that is almost certainly an undercount and will certainly increase), 11% come from nursing homes. Out of the 130,000 deaths, a startling 43% come from nursing homes. Several factors may be at play: the disease is “particularly lethal to adults in their 60s and older who have underlying health conditions” and “it can spread more easily through congregate facilities, where many people live in a confined environment and workers move from room to room”(NYT). Shift the age distribution younger, and you get a similar but perhaps worse situation for the incarcerated.

Americans care much more about their grandparents than prisoners. Conditions are cramped, with no ventilation, no access to proper sanitization and many people have untreated underlying health conditions. For years, those convicted of a crime have been treated as second class citizens. The thirteenth amendment, built in one exception to its outlawing of slavery: “except as punishment for a crime.” After prisoners are released, many states do not allow them to vote or erect significant obstacles. Our prison population has exploded following the tough on crime era: America is 4% of the world population, but holds 22% of all prisoners. This expansion specifically targets Black men, who are now 5.9 times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. It seems inevitable that spread of the coronavirus, with its unequal distribution of health outcomes, would infiltrate prisons, which are physical manifestations of systemic racism.

The latest coronavirus outbreak is happening at San Quentin prison: after having zero confirmed coronavirus cases, 121 prisoners from a different prison, which was undergoing an outbreak, were transferred in. I think you can guess what happened next. Today, nearly 30% of San Quentin’s prisoners have been infected and seven inmates have died.

While California does spend the most out of any state on health care per prisoner (about $19,000), the 10 year-old, $136 million health care facility at San Quentin was quickly overwhelmed and patients have been transferred to nearby hospitals in Marin. Another issue is the lack of personal protective equipment such as face masks and face shields, which greatly reduce the spread of coronavirus.

We shouldn’t treat this as the accidental result of a catastrophically bad public health decision. Given the number of people living at San Quentin (as of April it was at 122% of its design capacity), it was almost inevitable that they would have at least one case. And the true disaster is that the prison had no means or plan to deal with the problem stemming from patient zero. Nearly a month ago, health experts warned government officials about the possibility of a prison outbreak that could spread to the wider community. More and more people are becoming aware of the situation and demanding answers from Gavin Newsom, who is attempting to balance releasing prisoners with the possibility of recidivism. Recently, he announced that California would be releasing 8,000 inmates to enable social distancing.

The federal government has fallen short in producing PPE for hospitals, which is why “It Takes A Village” was founded. And if our government can’t provide for hospitals, they definitely won’t be providing for prisons anytime soon. That’s where we stepped in. After UCSF Zuckerberg Hospital asked us to help provide PPE to San Quentin, we were able to make a joint donation of 1,200 shields with the help of .mOxy. Thanks to the efforts of the Piedmont Boy Scouts Troop 11, Open Families, and individuals, we were able to assemble and deliver these.

Mike Pedersen, Correctional Health Services Administrator II, greeted the Boy Scouts when we delivered the face shields. He was very appreciative of ITAV and said that the face shields are very important and will save lives. Our work gave healthcare workers the tools they need to combat coronavirus safely and will help ensure that our prisoners stay protected.

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