The reporters, all dressed in blue, look up from their computer screens when we enter the editorial room of San Quentin News. We, the World Press Institute fellows, have left all our belongings – including mobile phones – outside of the facility to be allowed to enter this award-winning newsroom, based in one of the most infamous prisons in the United States.
“We work here every day to produce quality journalism,” says David Ditto, associate editor and prison inmate who was sentenced to 25 years for the first-degree murder of his wife in 2011.
We ask the reporters to what extent a prison newspaper can publish critical stories when its content is overlooked by the prison administration.
“One topic we return to over and over again is overcrowding,” Ditto says. “That is a serious issue that we cover critically.”
We soon see the extent of the overcrowding with our own eyes. San Quentin confines its inmates to cells about the size of a walk-in closet or a small bathroom. “Double-bunking,” two men sharing the same cell, is the norm here.
Our guide Vincent Turner, Jr., who received a 23-year prison sentence for armed robbery in 2013, opens a squeaking barred door to an unoccupied cell. One by one, we step into a tiny concrete room – approximately 11 by 4 foot – with a simple bunk bed on our left and a stainless steel toilet, without a lid, in front of us. Hidden behind the bed, a metal sink and a minimal table fill up the back corner. It is difficult to move around in the crammed cell without hitting the walls or the bed.
In fact, San Quentin’s cell size of 50 square feet is in violation of the American Correctional Association’s standard of 70 square feet in a double-bunk cell, if the persons are incarcerated for more than 10 hours per day, as also The Nation pointed out. That was the case during the pandemic.
“We were confined to our cells almost 24 hours per day. We saw no visitors and made very few calls,” Turner says.
At the start of the outbreak, the prison’s north and west blocks were almost 200% capacity, The Appeal reported. About 4,000 men lived in San Quentin at the time of the lockdown, which is about 1,000 more than the prison’s designed capacity of 3,084. Moreover, the prison was originally built for only single-cell occupancy.
The dimensions of the cells ”made the lockdown particularly trying,” staff writer Charles Crowe wrote in the San Quentin News in April 2022. ” The inmates struggled with claustrophobia, lack of exercise, reduced family contact, and boredom.”
San Quentin and the other prisons in California didn’t provide the social distancing or isolations needed. Across the state’s prison system, overcrowding was one of the main reasons for nearly 80,000 COVID-19 cases, according to an independent report in 2022.
San Quentin had managed to reduce its population by 40% to 2,384 by the time the prison reopened after the lockdown in May 2021. But since then, the figure has been creeping up and the numbers are back to over-capacity.
When we visited the prison in April, the latest official figure was 4,024, more than 30% over the designed capacity.
The historic Alcatraz prison in San Francisco is often portrayed as the worst place to be incarcerated. The cells were roughly the same size as those at San Quentin, which is located north of San Francisco. But there is a distinct difference: everyone had their own cell. In present-day San Quentin, two men share 50 square feet.
Photo above: San Quentin prisoners on recreation, by Zboralski – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.