In 2015, I had the worst sickness in my entire 16 years of incarceration. Until this day, I do not know what the virus was and what or how I had contracted it because I never checked into medical.
It is widely understood between people incarcerated that if you check into medical for any virus or serious flu, you will be sent to solitary confinement and be isolated. It is common knowledge that being sick is punishable in prison.
I chose to take care of myself. I believed I could do a better job than the prison’s punitive response to sickness and its poor healthcare system. I stayed in my cell and lay on my bunk. For almost three days, I shivered relentlessly. I had severe hot and cold flashes. I couldn’t move an inch to the right or left without excruciating pain. I couldn’t eat because for one, I did not have an appetite and two, because prison food is horrible and I didn’t trust its nutritional value. All I did was drink water (sink water from my cell) and rest.
I barely slept. When I did sleep, I had nightmares. Many of them were about my family and I’d wake up with intense worry. As my physical pain evolved, my emotional and mental health pain grew substantially. Prisons are not hospitals- therefore prisons lack “hospitality.” In times of sickness, all human beings need physical as well as emotional comfort. Medicine not only comes in bottles, medicine also comes in the form of love, care and support. Physical pain and anxiety are triggers of one and other. To deal with physical pain and avoid dealing with the mental pain should be considered malpractice. In prison, you get neither.
So “turning myself in” and notifying correctional and medical staff was not a desired option. Going to solitary can mean losing your cell/cellmate, not having any of your belongings (papers, pencils, stamps) and worse, though you are not sent to solitary for disciplinary reasons, you do not have access to phone calls to contact family. Solitary comes with their own administrative rules to obtain safety and security. There are no distinctions or modifications made for the reasons people are there. Once you’re in solitary, you abide by and you will be treated by the harsh, permanent regulations.
During my San Quentin stay, an outbreak occurred. I was on the yard playing basketball one day when an announcement was made for everyone to return to their cells. When I saw people returning from work, that’s when I knew something serious was going on. After a while, we were told over the building’s loudspeaker that we are going on Quarantine. A collective, deflated sigh was let out by 5 tiers (on each side of the building) of nearly 900 people. We all knew quarantines and lockdowns have no time limit and worse, very limited information and updates are given. Concealing information is common practice by staff.
The prison didn’t know what kind of outbreak was happening. They first believed it was coming from water. All water was shut down. Meaning, no water was coming out of our sink. Which also meant we couldn’t use the toilet. Which also meant we couldn’t clean ourselves. I was furious because I came back from the yard and was playing basketball. I was sweaty, dirty and stuck in my cell without any running water. Whatever this outbreak was, I wanted it off of me and I wanted to be clean. We normally bird-bath on lockdowns and quarantines, which means filling up a small prison sink, placing towels on the floor, using a cup to pour water over yourself, soap, rinse, dry. I was doing this in a tiny, congested space in the back of a 4ft wide, 9ft long cell.
Since I could not clean myself, I became increasingly worried about my health.
People couldn’t use the restroom, if they did, they were unable to flush. My cellmate and I had to make a deal, only #1. Not everyone was able to keep that deal. The smells of 900 people were collected and contained within our building. Toilets were full and were unable to be flushed in every single cell.
Eventually, portable toilets and portable showers were brought into the prison and onto the basketball court. As for drinking water, we were carelessly let out of our cells to line up downstairs where large drums of water were. People brought as many cups, bowls or empty 20oz soda bottles to fill up and take back to their cells for the next 24 hours or more.
There is liquid disinfectant in prison. But you have to purchase it on the black market or ask a buddy to get you some as a favor for free if you cannot afford it. It is not issued to you.
One bar of small, state made soap is issued a week. You have to buy soap from the canteen/commissary if you have the money.
Gloves are for workers only and during work tasks.
One roll of toilet paper is issued a week. No Kleenex.
Hand sanitizers are not allowed in prison.
There are no cleaning towels or disinfectant wipes. Each person is issued two small towels for showering and drying. We would have to tear our second shower towel into pieces (which is illegal and punishable by a write-up/disciplinary action for “destruction of state property.” For context, any write-up can get a lifer a minimum of a 3 year parole denial).
In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, I am concerned about the safety of my pregnant wife as well as myself. However, I am on a “lockdown” in the comfort of my home, with my wife. I have access to my cell phone, laptop, Netflix subscription and more. I have food I trust and can eat when I want. I have cleaning supplies and can clean surfaces as well as wash my hands when I want.
I have space.
I can practice social distancing.
I can stay 6 ft apart.
This is bigger and beyond just affecting people inside our detention and corrections facilities. I am very concerned about every single child, parent, and grandparent in the United States. In California alone, we have 123,000 people incarcerated and 60,000 staff who come in and out of these prisons every 8 hours. That’s just California prisons alone. Add 110 more jail facilities and thousands more staff to that number. And that’s not even the scary part. The real scary part is no one is paying any attention to our prisons and jails. If they are, it is only from a political lens or they are not understanding the deadly implications our prisons and jails have on us who are out here free in this world. What fears me the most is the inevitable; In a matter of weeks, the United States’ prisons and jails will become COVID19 incubators and we are going to see a death toll in this country that we have never seen before. If we don’t act now, then at least start signing your will.
Adnan Khan is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Re:Store Justice, Adnan works in collaboration with survivors of crime, currently and formerly incarcerated people, district attorneys, CDCR officials and other stakeholders to move towards restorative practices. While incarcerated he Co-Founded the organization Re:Store Justice and worked on the felony murder rule legislation, Senate Bill 1437. The bill passed in August 2018 and on January, 18th 2019, Adnan was the first person re-sentenced under the bill he helped create. In addition, during his incarceration, he created FIRSTWATCH, a media filmmaking project produced entirely by incarcerated men at San Quentin State Prison that still produces short films today. His sentence was also commuted by Governor Jerry Brown in December 2018. He is an Art for Justice Fellow and is on the California Reentry Enrichment Grant steering committee.