SAN QUENTIN (CBS SF) — The worsening coronavirus outbreak at San Quentin State Prison has led to suspensions of inmate privileges such as telephone access, leaving inmates and their families cut-off from each other, an issue one group is calling attention to on social media.
Marion Wickerd’s husband, Tommy, is serving time in San Quentin for voluntary manslaughter. He tested positive for COVID-19, and doesn’t show symptoms, but she’s worried.
Twelve inmates have died among the 2,000-plus confirmed cases of coronavirus at the prison.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” said Wickerd. “We don’t know if they’re dead or alive.”
So she’s turning to social media. “The Voices of San Quentin” Instagram is allowing people to share what’s going on with their loved ones, with their fears,” she explained.
More than 1,300 people are following @VoicesofSanQuentin. The new page features inmates’ voices from their phone calls, edited into short clips.
A team of producers like Carolyn Mao and Crispy started the page in early July. They’d gotten to know some of the men, like Tommy Wickerd, while shooting a documentary about the prison running club. He is the club’s president.
“They’re just like sitting ducks in there. They’re dropping like flies,” Crispy said of the inmate population.
“Those who are on the inside are, you know, completely ignored and invisible,” Mao added. “I think it’s really important to hear their voices.”
And hear their stories, like what Wickerd said he encountered in quarantine.
“There were no toilets that were working. There was no electricity,” described Marion Wickerd.
Jonathan Chiu, paroled in early May before the explosion of infections at San Quentin, views “Voices” as a forum for protest. But he fears for his friends inside and he wants Governor Gavin Newsom to release more than the 8,000 prisoners who are slated for early parole statewide.
“I feel very sad and angry at the same time, that, you know, I was able to walk out that day, but everybody else that I knew couldn’t,” Chiu stated.
Crispy said it appears the prison is paying attention and has made improvements after Instagram posts complained about laundry, medical care, and lack of hot meals for those who are sick:
“Who wants to eat a bologna sandwich when you’re feeling horrendous? You know? So we posted these pictures,” Crispy said.
Then she heard from an inmate.
“He had the best meal he’d ever had in 20 years he was in prison,” she smiled. “They had cooked up some chicken tetrazzini.”
For families, Voices of San Quentin has also become a source of support, as physical distancing has limited inmate communication to the outside through calls and letters.
“If you hear somebody say they’ve received a phone call, you’re like, ah, that’s amazing. That’s awesome. It gives you hope that you’ll get a call soon,” Marion Wickerd said.
And when she finally got her call, she exclaimed, “I thought I had scored the lottery!”
Now she can add her own voice to the Instagram page, to calm others like her, held captive by fear outside the prison walls.
San Quentin prison officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but said in a statement that to stop the spread of COVID, only “critical” movement will be allowed between staff and inmates.