San Quentin coronavirus: Inmate shares how massive COVID-19 outbreak started

MARIN COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- San Quentin State Prison is suffering one of the nation's biggest coronavirus outbreaks yet, and it is straining hospitals across the Bay Area.

Just weeks ago, San Quentin reported no cases of COVID-19. The ABC7 I-Team has the inside story of how infected inmates came from another prison, and caught San Quentin officials off guard.

RELATED: San Quentin death row inmate dies amid coronavirus outbreak at prison

The I-Team's Dan Noyes spoke with an inmate, not at San Quentin, but at the prison that sent infected inmates to San Quentin, starting that massive outbreak.
San Quentin State Prison had no cases of COVID-19, as recently as May, but the virus was already raging 400 miles to the south, at the California Institution for Men in Chino. The inmate we interviewed has been there almost 20 years; he doesn't have coronavirus, but has seen many others get sick.

The Inmate told the I-Team, "It's spread like wildfire. And the problem is nobody knew it was there because most of the people who had it had it for a while before they knew they had it, they were asymptomatic."

RELATED: San Quentin's rising COVID-19 numbers could have major impact on Marin County, officials say

He says even after it was clear coronavirus had arrived in Chino, guards and staff did not take adequate precautions.

"We've had officers here come to work sick, knowing they were sick... We've had sick officers in our cells searching our cell and everybody who's had their cell searched by him ended up getting sick," he said.

To help ease the crisis at Chino, busloads of inmates left there for San Quentin, 121 in total. State prison officials said the inmates tested negative before their transfer, but the inmate tells us they had days of additional exposure to other inmates, before boarding the buses for Marin County.

"They're doing transfers all night long. And it gets to the point to where now these guys are going out there saying, 'Hey, listen, you got me on this list. I'm not feeling good. I genuinely think I've got COVID-19, I was exposed to COVID-19.' And the officers and medical, they got upset."

RELATED: San Quentin inmate describes conditions inside prison as COVID-19 cases skyrocket

The virus raced across the San Quentin population, more than a thousand inmates. Several have died after arriving at local hospitals, and many staff are now infected.
Last week, the chair of the Senate's Public Safety Committee told the state prisons chief, the public has a right to be angry.

St. Sen. Nancy Skinner, (D) Berkeley said, "I just feel like it was not taken seriously."

Ralph Diaz, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, answered, "We can do better and I know we will do better, but I need to express we've also had successes."

Ralph Diaz listed the steps CDCR has taken, among them:

  • Halted visitation and tours

  • Expedited release for 3500 inmates to allow for more social distancing

  • More testing, hand sanitizer, and masks for inmates and guards.

But, the Chino inmate told the I-Team, "Nobody's wearing any masks or anything else. As a matter of fact, they were actually threatening us with rules violations if we wore masks."

After serving almost 20 years for a violent crime, the inmate is just months away from a scheduled release. But, he doesn't think he'll make it. He believes he will become another coronavirus victim, because of several serious pre-existing conditions.

The inmate teared up and said, "Yeah, I can't think of anything worse."

The inmate tells us Chino is already talking about easing restrictions next week; the rate of infection is slowing there, while the crisis continues here in Marin County.

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