San Quentin Frontliners

Meet the Incarcerated Men Keeping Their Neighbors Safe

By Rashaan “New York” Thomas

Without applause, men incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison work tirelessly to keep the population as safe as possible from the coronavirus.

“I live in this community and if you get sick, I’m probably going to get sick,” 57-year-old Orlando “Duck” Harris said. “It benefits me [to keep surfaces disinfected] and it’s also a way of making amends.”

Harris, along with Kenneth Lewis and James Wortham, wipes down the commonly touched areas in North Block of San Quentin with a towel sprayed with “Cell Block” disinfectant, which contains didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride.

Cleaning the phones is probably the hardest and most dangerous part of their job especially when an outbreak of COVID-19 started at San Quentin on June 1, according to a report from former California Department of Corrections Medical Head Clark Kelso to a California State Public Safety Hearing held on July 1.

Every other day, one of five tiers, (approximately up to 166 people) use one of 12 phones for 15-minute calls. So every 15 minutes or so, Harris, Wortham or Lewis scrambled to wipe down each phone between each use. They manned the phones separately in three hour shifts.

“It’s challenging in the sense somebody will jump on [the phone], then jump right off and I have to clean it again,” Harris said. “I would rather make sure we have safe clean phones than deal with my frustration about doing it.”

Cleaning the phones also means exposure to almost everyone in the lofty cell-block.

“If I get it, it was meant for me to get it,” Lewis, 39, said through his mask. “All I could hope is that my body could fight it off.”

Lewis, incarcerated since 2001, works as a porter in North Block. He makes about $20 a month before court imposed restitution takes 55 percent, leaving him with $9 to spend. A lieutenant assigned him to keep the phones disinfected.

“I clean the third tier,” Lewis said. “Cleaning the phones is something extra, since COVID-19, but it’s something that’s regular now.” Lewis added that disinfecting phones is about more than his job.

“It keeps me out of trouble because it keeps me busy,” said Lewis, who completed a drug-related 30 day loss of privileges punishment right before the outbreak began. Lewis works well beyond his eight hour shift to stay busy, without getting any overtime pay.

Harris and Wortham do not get paid at all — they volunteered.

Wortham, a 57-year-old who in prison for 35 years until a recent release, worked in the prison hospital as part of a strike team that cleans bio-hazard spills, like blood or feces. He worked at the hospital from 6AM to 1PM then helped out in North Block.

The strike team worker volunteered his time off after receiving training to disinfect properly for COVID-19 and realizing that training was also needed in the housing units, he said.

“I feel like cleaning the phones is also part of my job,” Wortham said before paroling. “Everybody is counting on somebody to do that so we can feel safe.”

Harris, who has been incarcerated for 37 years, is in a coding program. Code 7370 stopped running when the shelter-in-cell orders program started in March. Harris volunteers his free time in the building whenever there is a crisis. During the Legionnaires epidemic at San Quentin in March of 2017, he helped carry clean drinking water to the building.

“If I can help keep the sickness down, I’m all for it,” Harris said.

The frontlines became even more dangerous on June 20, when someone in North Block tested positive for COVID-19, according to a California Department of Corrections Program Status Report.

On June 22nd and 23rd, medical staff set out to test the entire North Block for the Coronavirus. Dozens of men were moved from North Block to isolation due to positive COVID-19 results or high fevers discovered during daily screenings. “It terrifies me, but that’s even more reason to keep the phones disinfected,” Harris said.

Harris felt the key to staying safe was prevention and wearing protective gear because social distancing is very difficult in an overcrowded prison.

“One thing they [CDCR] can do better is let more people go,” Harris said. “I know they look at certain crimes but look at your elderly, guys who have 25 years or more. They’re the most vulnerable. Let them go.”

The administration released people who were within six months of going home, leaving the most vulnerable behind. Cases ballooned to over 290 staff members and 2,153 incarcerated people, including Lewis and Harris.

“Thank God all I had was a slight headache,” Harris said. “I didn’t even know I had COVID-19 until they moved me to a quarantine tent on July 6.”

From July 13-27, North Block went on a confined to cell lockdown to clear the unit of the virus. The aftermath of the virus is that over 27 incarcerated people and a correctional Sgt. died from COVID-19.

Harris returned to the frontlines two days after returning from a 21 day quarantine.

“I’m even more conscious of rubbing my face with my hands,” Harris said.

Phone usage resumed but despite the vicious viral nature of COVID-19, Harris says some incarcerated people have gotten complacent.

“Guys are so eager, they jump on [the phone] before I get a chance to clean it,” Harris said. “I have to remind guys they’re not invincible to the virus. I tell them, let me clean it first.”

As of Sept. 29, the prison registered three active cases of COVID-19. News reports say that you can get reinfected with COVID-19 after three months.

Harris, Lewis, Wortham and several guys in other cell blocks continue proactively fighting the virus in overcrowded conditions with poor ventilation armed with nothing but a spray bottle of disinfectant, rubber gloves, an N-95 mask and the hope that reinfections are rare.

Photo Credit: PETER MERTS

Rashaan “New York” Thomas writes from a cell at San Quentin, from where he co-hosts and co-produces the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Ear Hustle podcast. He is also a contributing writer for The Marshall Project and the San Quentin News. Plus, he’s currently curating an online exhibit of incarcerated artists’ paintings for justice at the Museum of African Diaspora.