By Jason Fagone | June 12, 2020
April Harris, a 44-year-old inmate at a California women’s prison, tested positive for the coronavirus in mid-May. Since then she has battled a dry cough, but that’s not the bad part of being sick behind bars.
The bad part, she says, is the atmosphere of neglect and chaos that has taken hold as the virus burns through the California Institution for Women, a 1,500-inmate prison in Riverside County owned and operated by the state. The bad part is listening to the screams of her fellow prisoners and her friends.
“Someone is yelling for help over and over and over,” Harris wrote on May 20 in a running journal of her experiences, which she eventually shared with prisoner advocacy groups and The Chronicle through a prison email service called JPay. “No one is coming. This one is scaring me. She keeps screaming. It’s piercing.”
Four days earlier, in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, officials at the institution had transferred many infected prisoners to a part of the facility once used for training inmates to fight wildfires. There the prisoners have been quarantined in isolation, with little ability to leave their cells — even to take showers — and only sporadic access to email and phone calls.
“Some of these women haven’t showered in four days,” Harris wrote in another journal entry on May 20. “An inmate ran out of her room when they opened her door for breakfast and is refusing to go back in. She is screaming she wants to talk to her family.”
Throughout the last two weeks of May, Harris continued to document the shrieks and pleas of her fellow prisoners. Sometimes, she wrote in her journal, the women were protesting against the severe conditions in the unit, and other times they were calling for medical help — seemingly for health conditions unrelated to the virus, though it wasn’t always clear. According to Harris’ journal, help often did not arrive in a timely way:
May 20, 9:30 p.m.: The girls are busting out their windows. The girl next to me has officially lost her mind. I can hear glass breaking while she is screaming.
May 23, 2:44 p.m.: Someone is screaming medical emergency. Now everyone is banging [on their cell doors].
May 26, 7:38 p.m.: People are screaming that they are going to hang themselves. The banging is the loudest since I’ve been here. Someone called [that she was having] chest pains. The officer is here. He is calling for the ambulance. I feel sick.
Harris is just one of thousands of inmates across the state being held in quarantine as officials struggle to halt raging outbreaks. There are now 3,148 prisoners and 482 employees who have tested positive for the coronavirus throughout California’s 35 prisons, according to state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation data. The bulk of the cases are concentrated in six large clusters, one at the women’s prison and the other five at men’s prisons in Central and Southern California. So far, 14 prisoners and two staffers have died, and the number of infected prisoners has risen steeply, multiplying sixfold between May 1 and June 1.
The state Corrections Department says it has taken “extraordinary and unprecedented measures” to fight the virus, spokeswoman Dana Simas said in an email statement responding to questions from The Chronicle.
But, according to Harris and six other female prisoners who emailed The Chronicle through JPay, as well as several advocacy groups that monitor the California corrections system, the reality of a prison virus outbreak is messy and dangerous.
Four women said that in the early days of the outbreak, they were forced by supervisors to clean areas where infected prisoners had been living, potentially exposing them to the virus. Later, when some women tested positive and were sent to isolated areas of the prison, they say they experienced dirty rooms, shortages of water, few cleaning supplies, and neglect and verbal abuse by guards.
On top of that, the prisoners who were isolated after testing positive received almost no information about what would happen to them, they said, sparking panic. According to Harris, at least two women under lockdown tried to commit suicide in late May; one of those women set fire to the mattress in her cell.
“I feel as if we are being so punished for having this virus,” Harris wrote.
Simas, the state spokeswoman, denied many of the women’s allegations and did not comment on others. But the stories of the prisoners, combined with rising case numbers at multiple prisons, suggest that the state’s current strategy is failing.
And if a prisoner gets infected, her life, according to sources at the California Institution for Women, soon becomes a nightmare.
Rianne Theriault-Odom first heard the term “COVID-19” in March. A prisoner at the women’s institution, she had been taking a computer coding class, but that month classes were canceled because of the strange new disease, she told The Chronicle in an email.
Theriault-Odom, 37, said she is serving a sentence of seven years to life for aggravated mayhem. She said her childhood was shaped “by violence and abuse,” and she arrived in prison with a fourth-grade education. Since then, she said, she has earned her GED. and worked toward a degree in sociology, with emotional support from her friend April Harris. Normally, they live four doors from each other. Theriault-Odom calls Harris “an awesome person” who “inspires much of my growth.”
The two friends would soon get sick and join each other in lockdown.
On April 6, a young woman in Theriault-Odom’s housing unit said she did not feel well and was taken to the hospital. The next day, Theriault-Odom said, “our housing staff put on gloves and a mask to pack [the sick prisoner’s] property. The mask scared us all pretty bad because this was our first time seeing an officer with a mask. So we all scrambled like ants in a desperate search for anything we could make a mask out of.”
At that point, there were 31 confirmed infections at other state prisons, including a cluster of 18 cases at a men’s prison just 5 miles away in Chino, the California Institution for Men. (Since then, the outbreak at Chino has ballooned, with about 700 confirmed infections and 12 deaths.) Multiple prisoners at the California Institution for Women told The Chronicle that it was common practice for staff to go back and forth between the women’s and men’s prisons, potentially spreading infection from one institution to the other. (Simas denied that any staff were moving between the two prisons.)
Since the start of the pandemic, prisoner advocates have appealed to Gov. Gavin Newsom and federal courts to order the release of tens of thousands of prisoners. They have pointed out that the California prison system is overcrowded, operating at 124% of its design capacity, making it difficult if not impossible for prisoners to socially distance.
Medical experts who do not work for the prison system have urged the state to prevent inevitable sickness and death by releasing large numbers of prisoners who pose a low risk of reoffending. Newsom and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra have resisted these demands, arguing in court that broad releases are unnecessary and would harm public safety. Instead, the state has taken smaller steps, speeding up the release of some prisoners already scheduled to get out within 60 days and shifting others around inside prisons to create more space.
But advocacy groups say that the state’s opposition to sweeping releases has deprived it of the most effective tool for managing the pandemic.
“It’s just an incredibly dangerous situation that they are creating and that they are responsible for,” said Lizzie Buchen, criminal justice director for the ACLU of Northern California. “They’re doing everything that they can think of to avoid releasing people. And it is absolutely futile.”
The outbreak at the California Institution for Women shows the limitations of the state’s incremental approach.
After the first woman tested positive for the coronavirus, and a second woman on April 15, the virus came for Theriault-Odom. She says she has the autoimmune disease lupus and takes medicine to suppress her immune system, making her more vulnerable.
She woke up one morning “in pain from my head to my feet,” started to cough and soon tested positive. As testing at the prison increased, dozens more women were confirmed to be infected.
Prison staff began scrambling to contain the outbreak. They handed out bandannas and masks to prisoners. Those with symptoms were treated in the prison’s medical treatment center or isolated in cells, while others who may have been exposed were placed under a 14-day quarantine.
And in a decision that heightened tensions, staff also ordered healthy prisoners to disinfect contaminated areas of the facility, including rooms in the medical center where infected patients were isolated.
Some women at the prison work for the California Prison Industry Authority, or CALPIA, earning between 40 cents and $1 per hour to clean medical areas as part of a team called Healthcare Facilities Maintenance. On April 16, according to an email from a nursing supervisor at the prison that was obtained by The Chronicle, prisoners on the maintenance team were required to clean the isolation rooms of COVID-19 patients every day while wearing a mask and “while patient remains on the bed.”
Several women protested; they say they were being asked to reuse masks multiple times and feared exposing themselves to the virus.
“I am unable to sleep with the thought of that,” one member of the cleaning crew emailed The Chronicle in mid-April. She did not want to be named for fear of retribution, and the newspaper agreed under the terms of our sourcing policy. “This virus is something new and we need to be safe at the end of the day and I do not feel safe. My face mask didn’t even seem to have a proper fit to my face.”
The prisoner said she was told that if she refused to clean the rooms, she would be disciplined by a CALPIA supervisor.
Simas said no women were forced to perform that duty — they could choose not to report for work — but confirmed that prisoners were expected to clean the rooms of COVID-19 patients and faced disciplinary action if they declined.
“Incarcerated individuals apply to work and if they don’t show for work, just as you or I in a real-working environment, they will receive verbal then written warnings and later could be unassigned,” she said in a statement.
April Harris had a job with the prison industry, too, earning no more than 13 cents an hour as a porter. She says she was ordered to scour common areas in her unit. She wore a mask and rubber gloves, but from time to time she would slide the mask down to take a breath when she got particularly hot.
A mother of three from Monterey, Harris is serving a sentence of 17 years to life for second-degree murder. She has long maintained her innocence and has spent almost 25 years in prison. Colby Lenz, an advocate with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, says she has known Harris for about 15 years and finds her to be a reliable source of information who rarely complains about prison conditions or guards.
In May, with coronavirus cases rising at the prison, officials started to move large groups of infected women to empty areas of the facility in an attempt to slow the spread. The state Corrections Department says they placed only asymptomatic women in these units; women say that some prisoners with COVID-19 symptoms were sent there.
Not long after Theriault-Odom fell sick, Harris developed a dry cough that kept her up at night, and she tested positive for the virus. She said she was told to gather a few personal possessions and was transferred to a different part of the prison, where the cells had no windows, the ventilation was poor and the surfaces were covered with cobwebs.
Around May 16, both women were moved again, to a 220-person housing unit in the former firefighting camp. Their cells were on opposite sides of a hall. Harris began keeping her journal, typing it on a tablet computer.
“I have been documenting everything,” the first entry begins. “I call it the Corona virus chronicles.”
Even for people who were used to being incarcerated, the isolation area was nearly unbearable. Typically, women at the prison are free to come and go from their cells from morning until night, except for 45 minutes in the afternoon. Now they were confined to their cells, two women to a cell, for more than 23 hours a day, Harris said.
She wrote that the unit felt like a place of punishment. The earliest entries in her journal describe a litany of slights and deprivations, some seemingly small, others more troubling.
When she first got to her cell in the fire camp, there was no mattress and no toilet paper, she said. After more than 12 hours, a mattress and a roll of toilet paper were finally brought to her, she wrote, by a guard who kicked the mattress into her cell with his boot, laughing. She used body wash and most of the toilet paper roll to wipe off the boot print.
According to Simas, the cells were cleaned and mattresses provided before the women arrived. She said that infected prisoners in isolation are allowed to spend time outside their cells, in the yard and dayroom, and to shower “at least every other day.”
Women who wanted to clean their cells didn’t have the supplies, multiple prisoners said. When prisoners asked guards for supplies or medical attention, they say, they were often ignored. One guard told Harris to “602 the shit” — 602 is the paperwork code for a prisoner grievance — but when she asked for a form 602, she was repeatedly denied, she wrote, and some guards hid their name tags, making it even harder for the prisoners to complain about guard misconduct.
“I honestly think that they are so overwhelmed,” Harris wrote. “I’m watching the staff break down.” Simas said that 602 forms are widely available to prisoners and that processing of the forms “has continued without interruption” during the outbreak.
One of the toughest days was May 19. Harris and Theriault-Odom say a prisoner in a nearby cell had been refusing food and medicine for days, often a sign of serious mental distress.
Late that morning, Harris looked across the hall into the prisoner’s cell and saw “large flames” leaping up, she wrote. The prisoner had set fire to a mattress. “I was in shock for about two seconds … and she was so calm just looking at me. Finally I snapped out of it and I started screaming, ‘Her room is on fire.’… I thought she was going to die and I was going to watch her burn.”
In a cell on the other end of the hall, Theriault-Odom heard the shouting, saw smoke and panicked when no staffers came. She screamed, “Please don’t let us die here,” she later recalled, and “began to throw my body against the door desperate for a way out. To my relief I heard keys. They started opening our doors. … There was so much smoke I could not see in front of me.”
Corrections spokeswoman Simas confirmed that there was “a small cell fire” at the prison on May 19, extinguished by staff and a prison fire crew around 11:40 a.m. No injuries were reported, she said, and the women in the unit were briefly evacuated and checked by medical staff.
Several days after the fire, according to Harris and Theriault-Odom, another prisoner in the unit tried to commit suicide. Simas said she could not confirm or comment on allegations of suicide attempts due to medical privacy laws.
Harris also started to worry about Theriault-Odom. Although Harris couldn’t see her friend, she could hear her voice. One day, Harris wrote, Theriault-Odom began “talking crazy,” as if she might harm herself.
Harris said she only saw the mental health staff in the unit when they came by to slide sheets of puzzles, coloring paper and yoga exercises under the prisoners’ doors. Simas said that “robust mental health services” are available to all inmates at the prison and that care providers regularly visit the cells.
In the last week of May, conditions in the unit started generally to improve. Word of the women’s plight was getting out to advocacy groups, and a protest on May 23 outside the prison attracted a caravan of 80 to 100 cars. Harris’ journal noted some small acts of kindness by prison employees. Staff brought the women cups of ice, sometimes twice a day. Shower time was increased. One guard allowed the women to spray bleach on their toilets and sinks.
By that point, too, many of the women thought they could see an end to their ordeal. Staff were retesting many of the prisoners; if women tested negative, they could return to their old cells.
While awaiting her test results, Harris watched the news on a small TV in her cell. On May 30 and 31, she learned about the police killing of George Floyd, the protests, the teargassing of peaceful crowds. It seemed like the country on the outside was just as broken as it was inside. She wrote, “The world has gone mad,” then felt a pang of guilt for having dwelled on her own problems.
On June 1, Theriault-Odom tested negative and was released from lockdown. Another 17 women who tested negative also were soon returned to their old cells.
Harris was not so lucky. Her test came back positive. A nurse told her she would need to remain in isolation another week.
“I’m so broken right now,” she wrote.
The hall was empty now except for Harris and about four other prisoners. Finally, after weeks of screaming and banging, all was quiet.
“I will be OK,” Harris wrote, trying to convince herself. “I’m really trying to be strong. I keep talking to myself. I keep encouraging myself.”
On June 4, according to the Corrections Department’s public COVID-19 tracker, the number of “active” virus cases at the prison dipped from a peak of 157 down to 107, meaning that 50 women had tested negative. Simas said this was proof that the isolation of the prisoners was “successful at mitigating the spread of COVID-19.” At the same time, though, the virus was leaping into new facilities, threatening prisoners and staff at two prisons that had so far avoided outbreaks — San Quentin and the California State Prison, Corcoran.
Meanwhile at the women’s prison, Harris was coming up on a month spent in isolation.
“This is pure torture on so many levels,” she wrote on June 4. “I got this though.”
Five days later, on June 9, a female prisoner with COVID-19 died at an outside hospital, according to the Corrections Department — the prison’s first virus-linked death.
The next day, still in lockdown and reading Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” to pass the time, Harris heard that one of her friends had died.
“I am beyond devastated,” she wrote. “She was so young. Our dream was to make it out of here alive. She didn’t.”