First Person: Sick And Afraid Inside San Quentin
Above photo: People hold up a banner while listening to a news conference outside San Quentin State Prison Thursday, July 9, 2020, in San Quentin, Calif. A group of legislators, advocates, academics and public health officials gathered at San Quentin State Prison to discuss a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility. AP Photo/Eric Risberg.
For weeks, prisoners at San Quentin have been sick and dying as the epidemic spread rapidly in the crowded, stacked cells.
Then the author fell ill, too.
Death Row San Quentin Prison – We men and women who unfortunately have been sentenced to death and sent to death rows here at San Quentin State Prison (for men) and the Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla have often been referred to as the “walking dead” or “Dead Man Walking,” as made famous by the 1995 movie, starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, about a death row inmate.
We were called these names long before the COVID-19 pandemic came upon us all, seemingly out of nowhere. After it came on the scene, we death row inmates got a double dose of death.
Since May 1985, when I first arrived at San Quentin, I have been living under the constant threat of manmade death, state-sanctioned torture and murder, first by way of the gas chamber, then later by lethal injection, as well as living in one of the most violent prisons in the entire world, where inmates stabbing each other for any type of reason was once the norm.
In 2004, when I came within 3 hours and 42 minutes of being executed by lethal injection, I was at least able to prepare myself as best I could for this crime against humanity that was going to take place against my Black body by prison guard executioners trained to do this by burning me alive from the inside with their poisonous lethal injection drugs.
In my mind, I thought, and I prayed, that I could honestly prepare myself for this … But could I really?
Not even that near death experience could prepare me for this COVID-19 pandemic and all that it brought with it. The uncertainty of everything concerning one’s health, and or even death is unnerving. At least when I was facing manmade execution, I was told exactly the day, date and time that my life was going to be taken. But that’s not the case with the coronavirus.
Every little thing that happens like a cough for example, or a sneeze, or anything like that makes you wonder, Do I have the coronavirus? This is a form of psychological torture, just as executions and knowing what is going to happen to you is, but it’s also very different.
Then one starts to wonder, as I did, about the men who live in the cages on either side of the 4½-by-11-foot cage I live in, number 82, and in cage 81 and 83 there are other men, and then men on their further side. While this type of mental torture is happening in one’s mind, the reality and truth about what has and is taking place must be dealt with as well.
According to the prison grapevine, certain news stations, and a friend from outside, 21 inmates have died of COVID-19, 11 of them from death row as of July 29. Plus, there have been 2,166 confirmed COVID-19 cases here, and more than 200 prison guards are among the 254 staff who tested positive. Fewer than 90 have returned to work, and now there’s a staff shortage at San Quentin.
Many of these cases and deaths were preventable, and the chief medical officer of the state prison system was removed from his job for this and other reasons, according to certain prison guards and news reports.
The prison furniture factory, where inmates from general population work to make furniture, has been closed and converted to a hospital for inmates in general population who need to be hospitalized, but not in a hospital outside the prison.
There have been huge tents set up on the general population yard for triage and for whatever medical needs inmates have. The prison kitchen where food was cooked to feed the entire prison, including death row, was closed because of this epidemic. Inmates were served baloney and cheese sandwiches, then the prison hired an outside food vendor to deliver truckloads of prepared food in plastic and non-plastic trays for all inmates in this prison, and now we’re back to the kitchen food being served on paper trays.
This prison is truly on “lockdown” and the only time we inmates on death row leave the cages that we are assigned to is for medical and dental visits or to be taken to the shower three times a week. Telephone privileges were temporarily taken away, the only prison in the state where this happened. Supposedly the prison medical staff were afraid that we can get the coronavirus from handling the telephone. Then we heard on local NBC news that the main reason was because inmates were calling their families and the news media with information about what was going on in here.
While living this unbelievable life under these unbelievable circumstances, I remembered that in early 2020 my friend and lead attorney in my case told me about an illness that he had. He told me how he hurt and all he went through, though it may not have been the coronavirus. I remember thinking to myself that he was exaggerating as to the horrible experience that he went through concerning his illness, nothing could be that bad, and I said to myself that he was getting soft in his old age. After all, “I’m rough, I’m cheap steak tough, I can handle anything,” was my mentality.
In late June 2020, I called my attorney and apologized to him for thinking that he was exaggerating about how bad he felt and all that he experienced because of that illness. I told him that I honestly thought that he was truly exaggerating when he told me about the things he went through.
Why did I apologize to him? Because in the middle of June, I began to get ill as well. But because I kept getting both my body temperature checked, and my oxygen levels checked every other day by the prison medical staff, and was told that I’m good and everything is fine, I knew that I didn’t have the virus and wasn’t thinking about anything else as far as illnesses go. I was focused on not getting the coronavirus.
Every test I took I was good, no high temperature, good oxygen levels, but I kept feeling worse with each passing day. I was still doing everything that I do in this cage, from reading to writing to working out and speaking to my people on the phone, all the time getting worse, but not having a temperature and still having good oxygen levels.
One day, I just fell onto the bed and lay there for hours. Dozing in and out of sleep, I kept hearing inmates calling out, “Man down!” “Man down” is an alarm system we inmates use to notify the prison guards when an inmate in a cell is unresponsive or sick. I kept hearing inmates call “man down” and giving their cell number and tier.
And this went on for a week straight, all day and all night long, inmates were calling “man down” somewhere in the unit. When this happens, the alarm in the unit goes off, which is a loud buzzing sound that can be heard all over the unit and outside the unit. Then the officers go to the cell where the inmate is down. Some inmates can walk out on their own, sometimes the medical staff has to be called and they are taken out on a gurney. Some of these men ended up in the hospital.
There are five open-air tiers in the East Block — death row — with 52 cells, a total of 260 cells; each tier has two showers. On each tier, 26 cells on one side face an equal number across from them. One side has sealed windows that face the prison yard, and across the way the cells have a view of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. That is the view from my cell on the fourth tier. So, when an inmate yells “man down” anywhere in the block, it can be heard throughout death row.
If we inmates do not look out for each other by calling “man down,” inmates can lie in their cage without getting any help for lord knows how long. And that might cost somebody his life. Especially if it is after 4 PM because at 4 PM is standing count—and if we don’t stand for the count, they will want to know why, and after that, there is no count till 4 PM next evening.
I did not want to call out “man down” for myself out of fear that they would remove me from this cage and take me to who knows where in this prison for some type of isolation purpose. The prison has put flu and COVID-19 patients in solitary confinement in the solitary housing unit, or SHU, with no phones and few personal belongings.
I made myself get up at 4 PM for mandatory standing count; I then lay back down. I didn’t eat dinner, or breakfast, lunch or dinner the following days. Exactly how many days I don’t know. I only got out of bed for standing count, temperature and oxygen checks, which remained good, and to use the phone. I would man up and use the phone and talk to everyone like nothing was wrong (although some said later my voice was weak.)
I did not want to make anyone in my world and on my team and in my life worry about me anymore than they already were, especially knowing that they have their own lives, families and everything else, including worrying about catching the virus themselves.
So, I pretended that everything was good with me, but I was hurting and hurting badly. Each and every day I was getting worse. I went and reread the information concerning the symptoms of the coronavirus that the prison handed out, and I did not have any of those symptoms, yet I was in bad shape.
My body started to hurt, and I started to vomit. I couldn’t keep even water down, and the water from the tap was so warm that all I kept thinking of was ice water.
I wanted ice water so badly! Ice water is contraband in this prison. You can’t get ice unless a doctor prescribes it, like if an inmate hurts his ankle playing basketball and the doctor gives him a prescription to put ice on it. At one point a doctor came by and I begged him for ice, but he turned away and I did not get the ice.
I had spoken to many of my friends on the phone shortly before this. My attorneys and I spoke to Kim Kardashian, a supporter, to give her an update on my efforts to get an innocence investigation to present new evidence in my case, and I wished her luck on her studies for the baby bar, a precursor to her taking the state bar exam.
Everything was good, then it was all bad, seemingly just that fast.
I started to develop a sour taste in my mouth. It was nasty, and all I could do is wash my mouth out with mouthwash. I could not get rid of that sourness inside my mouth and in my throat and stomach. All the while, I was throwing up, hurting with body aches, and having no medication other than Tylenol and ibuprofen on hand.
I contacted a couple of my friends and asked them to send word out that I was ill. They did that, and one of them posted it on my Facebook page and word got out quickly. I could no longer afford not to let my people know about my illness for fear that I may actually die. When my friend in New Zealand, Dr. Kate Orange learned about my illness, she told me by way of my friends not to take ibuprofen without having food in my stomach. I couldn’t eat, but I never took the ibuprofen because I couldn’t keep anything down.
I also found out, mainly because I was not the only inmate who was down at this time, that we all had the flu, and a bad case of it. Medical staff were asking inmates about it, but none ever asked me, and I did not tell them. I felt better emotionally knowing I had the flu instead of the coronavirus, yet the flu kills many people every year as well, and I did not think of that during this point in time. I just knew I did not have the common symptoms of COVID-19.
Being in prison is bad enough for one’s health, especially when the prison health system in this state of California was at one time among the worst in this country, so much so that it was under federal court orders to fix all that was wrong because inmates, all poor, were suffering and dying due to lack of adequate health care. We on death row see our plight ten times worse than the regular prison population because after all, we are on death row, deemed unworthy of life by society, and health care, especially good and consistent health care, not only saves lives, it gives life to the lifeless, people like me who are condemned to death.
In all of this pain and uncertainty about what was happening to me, I honestly felt like the living dead, even though I have no real idea of what “living dead” is, other than a zombie, or oxymoron. Yet I did not feel alive, and in fact I started to lose weight, about 10 or so pounds. My thighs got really thin, as did my legs, and my stomach shrank; by not being able to eat, I could not maintain the bodyweight that I had.
I stayed in bed all day long and still kept getting worse, hurting and telling myself not to give up, that I was going to make it, that I have too much to live for not to make it, that I have people who care about me, people who are working hard to get me out of this horrible place, people who are standing by my side fighting with me and for me to prove my innocence. I couldn’t give up and let them down.
While my body was getting weaker, my spirit and will to survive got stronger. Then, just as the illness came out of nowhere and kicked my ass in this cage, I began to feel it leave little by little. I began to feel better. It was after I went through this most painful health experience and started to feel better, I called my attorney and apologized to him because he was not exaggerating about anything. We laughed, and he was honestly happy that I was feeling better and on the mend.
I am scared not only of this coronavirus, but also of this prison health care system. So much so that I did not tell them I had what we all think was the flu. I did get a flu shot last year, as I do every year, and I hope it helped in ending what I had.
Now I am back to living this inhumane experience in this inhumane place, still living under the threat of manmade death by lethal injection, and by mother nature with this pandemic, and the flu. All kill and will continue to do so. Which way is worse? I do not know, nor do I want to find out.
Sometimes living on this modern day plantation I do not even know which way is up because I have been down for so long. Living in a place where I have no say about anything, control over nothing, a place where ice water is contraband, and there is no clean air inside this building called East Block where I am forced to live against my will.
This place where loneliness is my best friend and death is my constant companion makes me wonder: Am I am going to make it out of here alive—or dead in a body bag? There has to be more than this to what we call life. Living by one’s animalistic nature cannot be living life, and if one is not truly living, then aren’t they dead?
So, you tell me, am I living, or am I dead?
Editor’s Note: On July 2, after the worst of his illness, Kevin Cooper told his attorney that he had tested negative for COVID-19. Then, a July 20 test result was positive, and he was told he is asymptomatic. He is under quarantine until Aug. 13. Meanwhile, he has returned to his five-day-a-week workout regimen of 16 calisthenics, completing each exercise 250 times.
Kevin Cooper: In 1985, he was convicted of a 1983 quadruple murder and sentenced to death in a trial in which evidence that might have exonerated him was withheld from the defense. Cooper has become active in writing from prison to assert his innocence, protest racism in the American criminal justice system, and oppose the death penalty. His case was scrutinized in a June 17, 2017, New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof and by 48 Hours, March 21, 2020 https://www.cbsnews.com/video/the-troubling-case-against-kevin-cooper/. Visit https://www.savekevincooper.org/ and https://kevincooper.org/ for more information.