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Incarcerated Journalist Says Millions Behind Bars Are at Risk Amid Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic is a growing threat to the 2.3 million people locked up in U.S. prisons and jails.

As San Francisco takes the most severe measures in the country in response to COVID-19, telling 7 million people to shelter in place, we go inside the Bay Area’s San Quentin State Prison, where two prison blocks are under partial quarantine, to speak with incarcerated journalist Juan Moreno Haines. We look at how the coronavirus pandemic is a growing threat to the 2.3 million people locked up in U.S. prisons and jails, as prisons across the country have been shut down in response to the spreading virus and calls grow for mass prison releases around the United States.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. As confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. pass 4,500 — and I have to emphasize, the devastating lack of tests in this country mean that number is probably exponentially higher. But at this point, what we know is there are at least 87 deaths. Residents across six counties in San Francisco Bay Area are under some of the strictest measures in the United States. They’ve been ordered to shelter in place as of midnight last night until April 7th. The Bay Area order affects 7 million people.

But what about the people in the area’s jails and prisons? San Francisco’s new District Attorney Chesa Boudin and the San Francisco public defender are calling on their staffs to keep as many people out of jail as possible. At 2.3 million people locked up in U.S. prisons and jails, the U.S. has the largest proportional prison population in the world.

Well, on Friday, we reached Juan Moreno Haines on the phone at San Quentin State Prison in the Bay Area, just days before two prison blocks there were quarantined. At this time, no cases of COVID-19 had been reported in the prison. Juan Moreno Haines is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. His recent article for The Appeal is “In San Quentin Prison, Getting the Flu Can Land You in Solitary Confinement.” So I began by asking Juan to describe the scene at San Quentin.

JUAN MORENO HAINES: Right now I’m in North Block. That’s the mainline of San Quentin State Prison. And I’m in a pay phone, which actually looks like a pay phone, phone number 6, where I’m watching people going past back and forth in the units, a kind of regular morning in North Block at San Quentin State Prison.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Juan, we’re talking to you on March 13th. This is very relevant to give a marker for this moment, because we’re in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. And I’m wondering if you can talk about how you’re experiencing that at San Quentin, where you’re imprisoned?

JUAN MORENO HAINES: So, here at San Quentin, we get most of our news from the television, some from the radio. And so, we’re well aware of what’s happening outside the walls of San Quentin. So, now when we hear this coronavirus and how deadly that’s been worldwide, there’s a natural anxiety that exists over here about what’s going to happen to us when the public brings this illness to us, because the one thing that we know for sure is that it’s going to be brought in from the outside. In the way prisons operate, particularly San Quentin, because of its just unique style, there’s more than 3,000 volunteers that come in and out of this prison on an annual basis. And so, what the prison has done to prepare itself for this right now is that some of the volunteers that come in for the really big programs have collectively decided not to come in, so they don’t bring this illness to us.

What the administration has done at this point — and I don’t have any official documentation to show this; this is only what I’ve been told — is that visitations over the weekend have been canceled. What the administration has also done is posted just dozens and dozens of signs around on proper hand washing technique and information on how the illness is spread. But that doesn’t lift the anxiety level that the men have. When I walk the yard, the guys that know me ask me, “Juan, what’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?” And my personal opinion is that it’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, it’s when it’s going to happen. So, right now we’re in this state of unknowing, and we’re just anticipating how this illness is going to affect our lives.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Juan, let me read you an article from CBS San Francisco. “The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office is calling for the immediate release of pre-trial jail inmates who are at heightened risk of contracting coronavirus. In a statement, Public Defender Mano Raju said his office would begin filing motions to seek the release of all clients in San Francisco county jails at heightened risk, such as people over 60, those with heart or lung disease, diabetes, cancer, HIV, or autoimmune diseases.” And I want to ask, now, that is not San Quentin, of course, but what about especially the older population at San Quentin, people who are over 60, people who are over 80? What are you calling for now? Is there any discussion of early release because they are threatened in this pandemic?

JUAN MORENO HAINES: OK. So, the situation in CDCR is that, by court order, they are allowed to keep the population at 137.5% of designed capacity. And so, what that means is that San Quentin is over designed capacity. I can’t tell you the exact numbers specifically for San Quentin. But then, the other thing about the San Quentin population is, if you look at the median age of the population at San Quentin, it’s higher than the median age of CDCR. So, what does that mean to me? That means that we’re a particularly vulnerable population. But the mechanisms for release are complicated and cumbersome. And I just really can’t — in an ideal world, how do you deal with that? I really can’t call for any suggestions for CDCR, other than to know that San Quentin is particularly vulnerable.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering if you can describe San Quentin on lockdown. Among the issues, for example, how much access do you have to clean water and soap, which is absolutely critical to stopping the spread of the coronavirus?

JUAN MORENO HAINES: OK. So, the way supplies are passed out, cleaning supplies are passed out in North Block, is that once a week the porters who clean the unit goes around and passes out two bars of soap per cell. In addition to that, there’s disinfectant that — you could bring like, say, about a six- to eight-ounce bottle, and the porters will pass out different various types of disinfectant. If we’re on lockdown, what happens is that they’ll still end up passing out the soap, but then they’ll send the porters around with bleach and cleaning supplies, and they’ll be wiping down every area where people’s hands are touched. As far as like showers are concerned, while on lockdown or modified program, the prisoners are allowed to shower once every three days.

AMY GOODMAN: If you run out of soap, because simple hand soap and water are by far the most effective in breaking down, in fighting the coronavirus before you get it, do people have to pay for more soap for the commissary, or will they provide more? And then what happens to those who can’t afford it?

JUAN MORENO HAINES: OK, good question. While we’re on lockdown, we don’t have the capability of going to the canteen to buy soap. So we’re completely dependent on the unit to supply us with soap. If they run out of soap or they fall short of soap, typically, we borrow from each other, and, you know, it kind of works like that. So, right now what people are doing is they’re like making sure they go into the canteen, and they’re buying supplies, particularly cleaning supplies and food. The experienced prisoner knows to stock up when there is potential for a lockdown, because once you are locked down, you don’t know how long that’s going to last, and things like food and cleaning supplies are essential, because if you’re relying on the state to give you these supplies, you’re going to — it’s just not going to be adequate.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, Juan, you wrote a prophetic “piece: called “In San Quentin Prison, Getting the Flu Can Land You in Solitary Confinement.” When we broadcast this, San Quentin may be on lockdown, maybe not. We maybe won’t be able to reach you. But can you talk about what happens when you get sick at San Quentin?

JUAN MORENO HAINES: So, we live in such close proximity, that in the 13 years that I’ve been in San Quentin, if I see somebody with the flu or sick, I’m going to get it. I already know this. I’m going to get it. There’s no avoiding it. And so, what happens when multiple people — when it gets epidemic, pandemic, when it really starts to spread, what the administration would do was take the people who had those flu-like symptoms and place them in Carson Unit, which is administrative segregation.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is administrative segregation?

JUAN MORENO HAINES: Most people know it as The Hole.

AMY GOODMAN: Solitary confinement.

JUAN MORENO HAINES: Yes. Now, the problem with that is that when these sick people are put in solitary confinement, they don’t feel like they’re getting medical treatment. They feel totally isolated. And I just — in my mind, if I were sick and then put in a situation where I just felt horrible just because of my living conditions, that’s not something that I would want to do. And that’s the prevailing feeling of the people that I’ve interviewed that have gotten sick and were sent to Carson Unit, because the conditions there aren’t equipped to handle medical patients.

AMY GOODMAN: In your piece for The Appeal, you write about a 52-year-old man named Michael Adams. You quoted him saying, “It’s scary to be a man of a certain age after your health is compromised and be in a place that doesn’t seem to care if you’re dying.” Adams goes on, “I was pretty upset about that. It highlighted the warehousing effect of prison and the poor protocols that are in place in the event of a real health care crisis.” Tell us the story of Michael D. Adams, Juan.

JUAN MORENO HAINES: Michael was just — he’s been at San Quentin for about as long as I have. And he got sick and ended up going to what’s called the TTA, the triage section of our medical department here. And his temperature was up. And he ended up going to Carson. So I interviewed him about his whole experience, and the resulting — you know, it was kind of like the backbone of the story of punished for being sick. And that’s one of the things that he said. He felt like that he was going to a whole new prison just for being sick, when they sent him over to Carson. For him, it was very debilitating for him to be sick and then be subjected to that type of treatment.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Moreno Haines, I want to read from your article, that you wrote there in prison at San Quentin for The Appeal. You write, “According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, several U.S. and European studies on solitary confinement have found that people can suffer lasting psychiatric injuries even after short periods of isolation.” If you can talk further about that? And then you have this combination of both sickness and the psychiatric effects of solitary.

JUAN MORENO HAINES: So, some of the guys that I interviewed that were subjected to that, you know, they’re still here at San Quentin. And I’m not saying that — I’m saying they remember that. Those are lasting memories. Like when I reinterviewed Dewayne Brooks, I interviewed him probably a couple years after he had been sent to Carson for having a temperature, and he remembered that. And that’s when he told me, you know, if they come by to take his temperature again, you know, he’s going to like do whatever he can to prevent his temperature to be shown high, put cold water in his mouth or whatever, you know. To me, it just seems kind of just strange for a person to be sick and not want to be treated for their illness because that treatment is going to involve something that they feel is worse.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about your award-winning journalism at San Quentin. You’re a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. You write for The Appeal. I mean, this is a time that journalism is so important for many reasons, to let people on the outside know what’s happening on the inside in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, but also to provide information for people on the inside, critical information about how they can protect themselves, and also what’s happening inside, telling people’s stories, as you do so well. If you can tell us about practicing journalism behind bars and what this means now in the compounded time of the pandemic?

JUAN MORENO HAINES: I work with other guys here also and try to tell just the story as accurately as possible, because I don’t have to tell you prison is a bad place to live. I don’t have to tell you that the treatment is inhumane. I don’t have to tell you anything. What I tell the journalists behind bars is just let those who read what you write make their own judgment about what you are reporting. And that’s really all we have to do in order to give the public and readers an accurate portrayal of what’s happening here at San Quentin.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, very quickly, you’re over 60. That is the risk group, the highest-risk group — I guess people over 80 are, but 60 is there — for people who — to get the coronavirus, to suffer from it. Your thoughts? Are you worried?

JUAN MORENO HAINES: Of course I’m worried. I keep my hands clean. The porter just walked by with a spray bottle of bleach, and he’s cleaning out the phone booths. I live here. And, you know, when coronavirus comes inside of this prison, I just hope I can survive it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Juan Moreno Haines, incarcerated journalist, one of the people we interviewed two years ago when the Democracy Now! team visited San Quentin and the San Quentin News. This is Democracy Now! Back in 10 seconds.

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