SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — Greg Morris was doing 17 years to life in San Quentin State Prison for attempted murder when coronavirus infiltrated the prison’s walls. Morris was just released — three months earlier than expected — after he tested positive for COVID-19.
Now Morris is in quarantine in a hotel in Hayward where, in a Zoom interview with KPIX, he described what he called the “terrible” conditions inside the prison.
“My cellie had COVID-19,” Morris recalled. “He tested positive, I tested negative. It took a week, or three to five days to figure out right, that he actually tested positive and to move my cellie.”
By then it was too late as Morris’ cellmate had given him COVID-19 and the two men certainly were not the only ones to contract the virus. Testing consisted simply of fever checks and blood oxygen levels.
“It was people in the middle of the night passing out or calling ‘man down’ when there is a medical emergency due to COVID-19,” Morris explained. “That they did not detect based on those two significant factors.”
Morris also described what he saw as staff taking too long to start isolating positive cases, as on-site distancing quickly became difficult.
“They either put [positive cases] in tents onto the yard or they put them into the chapel on emergency beds or they put them in a PIA mattress factory into beds,” Morris remembers.
Morris said the staff essentially turned the Prison industry Authority Mattress and Furniture Factory into a makeshift hospital ward. Recent photographs provided by the California Department of Corrections show cots lined up inside the factory, confirming Morris’ assertions.
James Metters was released from San Quentin in May, before the virus hit. He confirms information contained in a letter sent to KPIX 5’s Allen Martin, from inmate Eric Phillips who is currently housed in San Quentin’s North Block. Phillips’ letter, dated June 20, was sent before the prison’s COVID-19 lockdown and, in it, Phillips asserts that before prisoners were transferred to San Quentin from Chino, there were no cases of COVID-19 in San Quentin.
Metters said he agreed with Phillips.
“They literally contaminated an institution that was not burdened by the disease,” explained Metters. “Normally, when the flu outbreaks hits in San Quentin everybody pretty much will get that flu so now we have this more threatening illness come inside the prison and the prison is just not designed to deal with physical contamination.”
Metters said he feels the age of the prison, with its open air design and bars only on cell doors, coupled with overcrowding, only added to the outbreak.
Re:Store Justice outreach and program manager Phil Melendez — himself released from San Quentin two years ago — agreed with Metters that overcrowding of prisoners only made the situation worse. San Quentin, he believes, needs to go from well above 100 percent capacity to less than half that.
“If you do get the population down to 50 percent then I could see … prison environment being a space where you could possibly socially distance in an effective way,” Melendez explained.
All three men agreed that, until more drastic steps are taken, more who live and work with inside the prison walls may become sick and even die.
“It’s a travesty,” said Melendez. “I would say that nobody was ever sentenced to die from coronavirus, nobody in the state.”
The Department of Corrections’ most recent statement on its COVID-19 response says “It has conducted the biggest reduction in its prison population in recent history, with more than 13,000 inmates released since March 2020.
It also says “it now has a unified command center and team in place at San Quentin along with more health screenings, PPE for inmates and staff as well as testing of inmates every seven days.”