By D’Wanda Schwarz & Rebecca Weiker

My father Alan Beisel age 74 was incarcerated at the California Medical Facility. He was housed there specifically because of his age and medical needs. But when an outbreak of COVID-19 occurred there in May, he was transferred along with over 100 other men to San Quentin. This was the “botched transfer” that neglected to test people close to the time of transfer and ultimately led to positive contagious people coming to San Quentin when they were not properly isolated. To date, 2214 incarcerated people have tested positive and 23 have died.


My dad arrived at San Quentin on June 3rd, and I received my first letter from him within a few days. He shared he was on quarantine and was housed in an area without access to electricity. His second letter on June 25th he said he was feeling ill and had diarrhea. He also shared that he had only received cold food for over a little over a week.


On July 3rd I received a call from Dr Wang with UCSF hospital who told me that my dad had been at the hospital for several days, and was now intubated. At first the hospital medical staff freely shared information about his condition and provided sufficient updates. UCSF offered to have a zoom meeting with my father since physical visits were not offered to COVID patients. Dr Wang went out of his way to obtain proper authorization with San Quentin on a Saturday to conduct the visits.

But after my dad was transferred to a different ICU unit, everything changed. I was told that because my father was an incarcerated person from San Quentin, I would no longer be able to receive status updates of his condition or conduct zoom visits with him. It took several tries to identify who at San Quentin could let the hospital know that the prison was not prohibiting this contact, but eventually I was able to connect with a Lieutenant and a doctor from San Quentin who were helpful.

The medical staff from San Quentin tried repeatedly to inform the hospital that the prison had given authorization for the video visits and that UCSF’s policy was not consistent with the law, but they were rebuffed repeatedly. In addition, San Quentin had asked every day for my father’s condition and medical records in which UCSF had not shared it with San Quentin during the time of their three way call on July 7th.  

Ultimately, CDCR had my father transferred to another hospital on July 17th, where I am now able to have zoom visits with him. He is intubated, and has been fighting for his life since then, and likely will not recover. I believe that if the hospital had not prohibited visits, he might have had the inspiration and hope to continue to fight and recover. According to research from Northwestern Medicine and Hines VA Hospital, patients in comas may benefit from the familiar voices of loved ones, which may help awaken the unconscious brain and speed recovery. 

I am sharing my story so that no family has to experience what I did. Both CDCR and community hospitals can and should connect with family members or other loved ones who have been designated medical decision-makers and have permission to receive private health care information. The initial contact must be made by prison staff to the hospital, but then hospital staff are free to give updates and allow communication between the hospitalized person and their loved ones. An incarcerated person is not “property of the state” and does not lose their right to be treated with dignity and receive the same level of care as any other patient in the hospital.

According to an article in Prison Legal News

“Wardens, guards, sheriffs and police officers are not court-appointed legal guardians and therefore cannot make medical decisions on behalf of incarcerated patients…Physicians and medical staff have an ethical and legal duty to adhere to the patient’s decisions, including through a surrogate decision-maker. Medical neutrality requires doctors to treat all patients, regardless of race, religion, socio-economic status, etc. as equal. This includes people who are incarcerated or otherwise in custody. Often, there is a misunderstanding among healthcare clinicians, jail and prison administrators, and law enforcement officials that healthcare decisions can be made by wardens, sheriffs, guards or police officers if a prisoner-patient is incapacitated. Under medical ethics and most state laws, those officials do not have medical decision-making authority for incapacitated prisoners…States such as California, Washington, Texas, Pennsylvania, New York and Illinois have statutes to determine a surrogate medical decision-maker for a patient in the event they are incapacitated. The states recognize that medical decisions for an incapacitated patient, without an appointed medical surrogate or proxy, should be made on a familial basis. “

In this time of COVID-19 I believe it is important for all hospitals to ensure their staff receive training around the rights and appropriate treatment of incarcerated patients. They are entitled to the same treatment and respect as any other patient, especially for end of life care and communication with their loved ones, without discrimination. UCSF’s website states they have a Non-Discrimination Policy. My hope is that they apply this policy to all patients, including those who are incarcerated. 


D’Wanda Schwarz is founder of Virtual Dispatch Assistant opened in 2012, and founder of ABEI Capital Partners opened in 2015 (named for her father, A. Beisel). She is also a meditation volunteer, graduating to teach meditation in prison settings with the Prison Mindfulness Institute.

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