I wrote this essay on San Quentin for an online class I’m taking titled “Reading and Writing the Very Short Essay.” It’s taught by one of my favorite authors, Lauren Markham. It was published in Sunday’s Sacramento Bee print edition and other McClatchy papers throughout the state on July 5, 2020 and appeared online a few days before that.
My Marin County house, perched on a hillside and concealed from the street by redwoods, is five short miles from San Quentin. I’ve driven past the pre-Civil War era prison a thousand times, but never given it much thought. It exists in a world separate from mine.
I used to take the commuter ferry from Larkspur to San Francisco, which passes a few hundred yards from the shore in front of San Quentin. From the boat’s upper deck, I’ve seen prisoners in blue milling around the exercise yard. Did I really see them? Or have I just conjured those men up from prison movies? I’d sip coffee and read the paper, surrounded by other suited workers heading into the city. I’d sometimes wondered if the inmates saw us.
During the winter months, San Quentin juts into the fog-cloaked bay like the prow of a ship, barely visible as the penitentiary and the water merge together. The flickering glimpses of cerulean are the only sign of the thousands of lives unfurling there. The yard is too far to make out individual faces as our ferry accelerates past the tip of land that San Quentin sits on. High fences, concrete overpasses and the rough waters of the Bay separate it from the rest of us.
Ten weeks into the shelter-in-place order, my focus has narrowed to the redwoods standing sentry at my home and the whirring hummingbirds battling for spots at my feeder. I haven’t taken the ferry for months. From my deck, I read about the state’s decision to transfer more than a hundred men, wearing bright orange transit suits, from a prison in Chino. Even before the transfer, San Quentin was overcrowded – with more than 3,500 prisoners crammed into a facility built in the 1850s meant to hold far fewer. There were no cases of Covid at San Quentin before the transfer.
Another three weeks pass. Summer solstice approaches and the county slowly re-opens. With traffic still slow, the shoreline around San Quentin teams with migratory birds. Red-necked Grebes and Black-legged Kittiwakes touch down on nearby marshes. Before the lockdown, windsurfers used the area just to the east of the prison as a place to launch. Kayakers paddle past it on calm days. A new bike path has opened across the San Rafael-Richmond Bridge. One of my sons, who lives in the East Bay, bikes across the span about five times a week. Gov. Gavin Newsom and his family also lived a short drive from the prison, before they moved to Sacramento.
Every night, before settling into the down pillows on my bed, I check on new COVID-19 cases in the county. A few weeks after the transfer, the first infections are detected. Case numbers rise fast. Officials halt visitors and impose a lockdown. To dampen alarm beyond San Quentin’s walls, officials start separating out the prison’s COVID-19 case numbers from the overall count – segregating, at least numerically, our green and prosperous county from California’s oldest prison.
Case numbers climb above 120 and newspapers begin describing the conditions there. Sick prisoners are kept in a part of the prison known as the “adjustment center.” Below them are another set of prisoners, also in barred cells. Droplets containing virus particles float down from above, infecting the people on the next level, according to a chilling report in the San Francisco Chronicle. I can’t get that image out of my head. I picture it as gray fog invisible to the human eye, penetrating the uniforms and then the bodies of the captive men.
I sit outside and look out onto Mount Tamalpais as I write this, gulping in the geranium-scented air as if to prove I still have a sense of smell. Yesterday, I saw a pair of red-tailed hawks making high-pitched cries as they seek to prevent marauding black crows from stealing their eggs. I sit here, in my treetop nest, as the prison heads towards another day of lockdown – a measure imposed soon after the first cases appeared to try to halt the virus. On Sunday, the prison’s case total hits 193. The next day, 337.
I drive past San Quentin as June ends, passing under a Black Lives Matter banner hanging from an overpass. Many of the men who are incarcerated at San Quentin are Black or Latino, while our county is overwhelmingly white. A day or two later, the banner is gone – replaced with banners for summer camps. As of today, the case numbers at the prison have soared to more than 400. As infection spreads, the men at San Quentin now face possible death sentences, even those with short amounts of time left to serve. The case numbers sit in the chart several lines below the overall total – as if the county is trying, through a rearrangement of numbers, to make those infected men disappear.
Over the weekend, protesters in a car caravan called for the early releases of the elderly, the immune-compromised, or those who’ve nearly finished their sentences. San Quentin, often shrouded by early morning fog, is California’s only death row for male prisoners. The state’s decision to move in infected prisoners from elsewhere is handing down a death sentence for even more of them.
A federal judge, reviewing the situation, wiped tears from his eyes.
“We know what’s going to happen,” he said. “We know.”
I leave my placid neighborhood and head towards San Quentin. It’s the first time I’ve tried to go there, even though I grew up in Marin. I’m a reporter and my instincts are to see for myself and ask questions: I am drawn to where this catastrophe is unfolding.
It takes me exactly fifteen minutes to reach the gate from my house. The prison’s COVID-19 case count has jumped from 505 to 832 over the weekend. By Friday morning, it’s 1,345: More than a third of the prison population is infected. Some have been transferred to local hospitals, including one that’s just two miles from my house.
A young guard, masked and about the age of my son, stops me. My own 23-year-old is awaiting the results of his COVID-19 test after several days of fever. I take shallow breaths, as if the air around me is contaminated by a gray fog of virus rolling through the prison gates.
“Can I go in?” I ask.
I know this is an impossible request and I’m not sure why I came, other than a sense of powerlessness about not being able to do anything else. I need to do something, even if it’s only to show up at the gate.
“No,” the young guard answers politely. “With the Covid stuff, it’s all locked up.”
I roll up my windows, take a deep breath, and drive the five miles home.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect the latest case count at San Quentin as of Friday.
linda Varonin saysJuly 4, 2020 at 10:02 am
Nice article! Amazing how many Marin residents do not even know there is a San Quentin Village and nver driven to the gates. There is even a cosy beach to swim and enjoy there. I volunteered for 12 years inside the prison. SQ is known for its spectacular education program for inmates with a university and all sorts of classes for all. Thousands of volunteers go in monthly. All of this has stopped due to the virus. Prayers for all inside.