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Dispatch from San Quentin: 'West Block Weather'

New America Media, Commentary, Pao S. Posted: Mar 07, 2007

Editors Note: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently declared a state of emergency in Californias overcrowded prison system. Former YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia contributor Pao S., currently an inmate at San Quentin State Prison, argues that highly unsanitary conditions, overcrowding and neglect have created a mental and physical health crisis, one that contributed to an outbreak of the norovirus that shut down San Quentin last December.


SAN QUENTIN My new home is in the West Block section of San Quentin penitentiary. There is a huge sign posted on the wall outside my cell: NOTICE NO WARNING SHOTS FIRED IN THIS UNIT. The wall on which the sign is hung is stained with dried blood, saliva, urine and feces.

There are so many health and safety codes and civil rights violated in here every day, I wonder why the health department doesnt come in and shut this place down. Perhaps they look the other way or dont look at all.

West Block is half the length and width of a city block and has a capacity to hold up to 890 inmates. It has five tiers for each of its two sides. There are 445 4-by-12 foot, two-man cells.

Two gun rails enclose West Block. One is situated across from the second tier and the other on the fourth tier. A gunner walks with a semi-automatic rifle and a can of mace the size of a fire extinguisher.

There are hundreds of transactions going on. Inmates, both mentally insane and psychologically fit, are screaming, conversing, cat-calling, cursing the correctional officers, banging on lockers, rapping, singing, bartering and fishing with lines made out of linen. Through this chaos, falling water from overflowing toilets (we call it booty water) and trash from the cells create what we call West Block weather.

It is absolutely disgusting in here. The trash cans placed at intervals beneath the gun rails are empty. Garbage is thrown out onto the tier, then swept off to fall and accumulate on the first floor.

I can look out of my cell and see the refuse caught on the barbs of the coiled razor wire attached to the gun rails: old state clothes, dirty sheets, dingy underwear, bits of linen, rotten apples, plastic bags, moldy bread, green bologna, and tea bags. The wood used to make the walkway for the gun rail is covered with so much grit and human waste it has an oily dark sheen to it.

If we are lucky, we get to shower every other day. We are released by tiers and get 15 to 20 minutes to shower. Thats up to 88 inmates sharing only 12 or 15 shower heads. You step in, get wet, step out and soap up while another inmate steps in and does the same. When he steps out, you step back in and rinse.

Since Ive been here I have never seen the shower cleaned. A lot of us, myself included, would rather bird bath in our cells. Its safer and cleaner. We plug up the sink, fill it up with water and bathe. By using a container, possibly a cup or coffee jar, we rinse, soap, lather, then rinse again. We then flood the room with toilet and sink water to clean our cells.

The water floods our cells, drenching everything in its path, then flows onto the tiers, falling down to the first floor where it finally collects in a groove that passes for a sewer. As a volunteer worker, I was told to push the water in the groove with a bristle broom so it could flow into a drainage hole. I have never smelled anything so unholy. It was a terrible mixture of sewage, human waste, rotting vegetables and urine.

Because of the rotting trash, the indifference of the staff and the lack of available sanitation materials (we are given no disinfectants, sanitizers or cleaning materials), West Block has become a breeding ground for all kinds of bacteria and viruses.

There was an epidemic recently. I heard it was called the norovirus, but Im not certain. The staff was pretty tight lipped about the situation. All we knew was that an infection broke out and all of San Quentin was quarantined and on lockdown. Since we have no access to TV or phones in West Block and the mail is at least three weeks old, we didnt know how bad the outbreak had become.

We were served bagged breakfast and lunch in our cells and only went to the chow hall for dinner. Nurses came through West Block and asked if anyone had symptoms of nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Inmates that answered yes were confined to their cells and given medication.

For every new case of illness, the medical staff imposed an extra 48 hours of quarantine within that section. One inmate was heralded by the inmate population when he kept his illness to himself. We were all tired of being on lock-down and just recently had our normal program reinstituted and the quarantine lifted. Though he held out as long as he could, he was eventually caught when he vomited uncontrollably in the cafeteria.

We are treated like animals here. Actually, animals are treated better. We are subhuman, just numbers. I wonder why God cant give me what I want: peace, freedom, family, and a room where I can stretch out my arms and not touch the walls or smell someone elses shit. But I cant blame God. I made my decisions and I have to live with them.

It occurs to me that the worst thing that could happen to you here is to get used to it. You get used to living in filth, used to being treated semi-human, forgetting that you have civil rights. Pretty soon you forget that you were ever a person and become just another creature in this concrete jungle. You join in the chorus of hoots, hollers and barks until one day you wake up and think, Its not bad being in prison.

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