Returning to San Quentin Post-Pandemic – June 17, 2021 (day two)

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By Lesley Schisgall Currier

Today was our first day back with the Acting for Veterans group.  Most, but not all, of the men in this group are military Veterans. They had created a fully developed script based on their personal stories which was slated to be performed in a few weeks when Covid hit.  Back in the ARC Building on the lower yard the white board still reads “3/17/20” from whatever program was there last pre-Covid.  I don’t think anyone will erase that date for a long time.

Entering the prison, I saw a familiar figure coming out of the Protestant Chapel area.  Even with a mask covering his face, I recognized Angel.  Again, no hugs, of course, although that is such a strong impulse for me meeting anyone (in or out of prison) these days.  Angel shared that the pandemic had been rough for him.  His father died of Covid, and his mother is still so sick she is on dialysis. Angel himself had a pretty bad bout of Covid.  This Sunday will be his first Father’s Day without his father.

I know from talking to other people who have survived incarceration that losing a loved one while locked up is one of the most painful and frustrating experiences.  The feeling of powerlessness is compounded.  You don’t get to say goodbye.  You don’t get to grieve with family members.

Back in class with the Veterans Acting group, which includes some of the same men from Shakespeare, we heard more about the challenges of surviving Covid in prison.

Many of the men spoke of the isolation from friends, even friends in the same building.  Until just a few weeks ago, most of the men at San Quentin – with the exception of some essential workers like kitchen workers, and others like Porters – were locked in their cells most of the day. They had limited yard, limited showers, and no programming. Nate said that today was only the fifth time he had seen Rauch, one of the other men in the group, over the past 15 months, even though they live in the same building. The result of this social isolation was that it made Nate think about what family really is, what connection really is.  It made Nate realize how much he valued Rauch.  It made him reflect on whether he chooses to look at the “bad stuff” in people, or to focus on “the stuff that helps me be a better person.”

This social isolation was a tremendous burden.  One man described the claustrophobia, almost like solitary confinement.  The remedy: “You just had to live in the land of make believe.” This comment reminded me of Hamlet’s “I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

One man who worked in the kitchen was moved around from one housing situation to another.  He felt this put him in additional danger, but that the prison just wanted to make sure there were men available to work in the kitchens, and otherwise he was expendable.

The men felt that they were being punished by the social isolation that continued well after Covid had ravaged the prison and the majority of people incarcerated had been sick, especially because there was no way to avoid Covid at San Quentin.

One of the things that was obviously troubling a number of the men was a murder that had occurred during Covid.  A younger man was put in a cell with an older man.  Both men asked to be re-housed. The younger man had a history of violence against older men.  The younger man ended up beating his cellie to death.  One had only a year left on his sentence, the other only a month. The actors felt that the officers who didn’t reassign the older man to a different housing situation were responsible for his death. They said officers laughed when they learned about the murder. Whether or not this is true, it shows how the men feel about the staff’s level of compassion. The men think the staff intentionally sets them up to fail so they can make the argument that all people who are incarcerated are violent and dangerous.

One man, Doug, was missing from the group. We learned he was in the hospital.  He didn’t have Covid, but he had had it, and the stress on his body exacerbated pre-existing conditions.  As one of the men said about the physical health challenge, “Covid makes everything go into overdrive.”  As we all know, the death rate of Covid is only part of the toll, with many people suffering physical hardship as a result of the disease.

The men wanted to know what we had heard about the situation at San Quentin. One said that “society just wants to forget about us.”  We assured them that the situation at San Quentin had been in the news often.  They were all aware of the ongoing trial, which was being televised in the Catholic Chapel, with at least one of the men telling us he is one of the 300 people bringing suit against the prison for wrongdoing.

In July of 2020, the CDCR decided to transfer 120 men from Chino to San Quentin. Chino was at that time a hotbed of Covid.  The men were not tested for Covid before they boarded the busses.  One of the men in the Acting for Veterans group remembers the 8 busses that pulled into the main yard.  Men debarked coughing and one was throwing up. Because the officers who interacted with the men moved throughout the prison, within hours men were getting sick in the housing units and the chilling calls of “man down” were being heard – the sign that a man was in need of medical attention.

One detail we learned was that after the men from Chino departed the busses, other men from San Quentin were put onto the same busses for transfer back to Chino.

At this time, the men at San Quentin say they had not been officially told about Covid.  They had not been issued masks, and were using makeshift masks of their own devising.

Despite the hardships, there was a buoyancy in the room, perhaps because the restrictions had been lifted so recently.

The group decided to read through the script they had created in 2020 the following week, to see if they wanted to perform this play.  They felt both that they had put a lot of work into the script and wanted to honor that, and also that they had new stories to tell.  They decided they will probably add to the existing script.  There is no rush to make a decision. The group will figure it out together.  Tina will be leading this group without me moving forward, and I know the group is in extremely capable hands.

As we did a theatre exercise which asked each person to identify something from the past year and half that they wanted to leave behind them, and something they wanted to carry with them into the future, the group shared wisdom. One actor did not want to hold grudges moving forward.  There was a man in his housing unit who he had had bad blood with; that man got sick and the actor thought he would make up with the man when he returned from the hospital.  But he never did.  He was one of San Quentin’s Covid casualties.

One man recognized that helping others also “helps myself.”  He wasn’t sure at first how to act that out, but another actor volunteered and they created a scene of one man helping another up.

There is so much wisdom in these groups, so much peer-to-peer learning, so much deep thinking about how to best live one’s life. These men have a tremendous amount to give to each other and the world.  And they do it every day.