Photo Essay by David Bacon

On Sunday, July 19, about a hundred people gathered at the gate of San Quentin State Prison in San Rafael, to call for the release of prisoners because of the terrifying spread of COVID-19 inside the facility. On May 30th the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation transferred 121 prisoners from the California Institution for Men prison in Chino into San Quentin. At the time there were no known cases of the virus in San Quentin, while Chino was a recognized hot spot.

Vigil participants hold cardboard tombstones bearing the names of San Quentin prisoners who have died. The interfaith community and families impacted by incarceration honor the lives lost in San Quentin due to COVID19, and call for the end of transfers of inmates between prisons and the release of prisoners. The vigil was organized by the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity and the Stop San Quentin Outbreak Coalition, and took place at the prison gates. Over 40% of the prison population has tested positive for COVID-19, and several have died. Photo by David Bacon

The coronavirus infection spread rapidly through San Quentin. According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation [CDCR], as of the date of the vigil there were 928 active cases and eleven prisoners had died.

Less than half of the prison’s current 3,524 population had been tested in the two weeks prior to the vigil. According to the CDCR, the concentration of confirmed cases at San Quentin is 621.9 per 1000. By comparison, for California (a hot spot state) as a whole, the confirmed case rate is 11.1 per 1000. (source:

Armando Nuñez Salgado, a former prisoner, holds a sign he made remembering someone he knew inside. Photo by David Bacon

The vigil organizers include the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity and the Stop San Quentin Outbreak Coalition, which describes itself as “a collective of formerly incarcerated folks, loved ones with direct connections to San Quentin State Prison, community organizers, and currently incarcerated folks at San Quentin State Prison.” Other participants came from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Re:Store Justice and the Asian Prisoner Support Committee. The speeches and placards they carried demanded that Governor Newsom come to the prison, that the state grant large-scale releases without categorical exclusions (a 50% reduction in the prison population), and an immediate stop to all transfers between prisons and from prisons to ICE detention centers.

The day following the vigil a twelfth prisoner, Troy Ashmus, died of the coronavirus according to prison authorities. Five more prisoners have died in the past week, bringing the total number of deaths at San Quentin to 17. In just 25 days, the number of incarcerated people at San Quentin with COVID-19 went from zero to over a thousand active cases. As the numbers rise, demonstrations by desperate families have become increasingly frequent.  

While the names of some of the San Quentin prisoners who have died are public, others are not.  Participants held tombstones in their memory nevertheless. Photo by David Bacon

According to the CDCR, the state prison system now has 7,672 confirmed cases, of which 1,025 were reported in the last two weeks. Governor Newsom has announced that he will release 8,000 prisoners by the end of August, but over the next six weeks the infected will likely number in the tens of thousands. With a prison population of 104,725 (123% of its designed capacity) there isn’t adequate space for isolation.

The vigil called on Governor Gavin Newsom to release prisoners from San Quentin, and some held a banner saying “Release Them All!”  Many speakers denounced what they called a “virtual death sentence” imposed on prisoners because of the COVID contagion. Photo by David Bacon

Laura Mondragon, wife of a prisoner, told the vigil participants that Newsom had to act more quickly to prevent more deaths. “Getting sent to San Quentin shouldn’t be an automatic death sentence,” she said. “But with the virus there is a terrible risk that it will be for people like my husband.”

Pastor Allison Tanner leads participants in a prayer ritual outside the San Quentin gates. Rev. Deborah Lee, behind her, told the vigil that over 7,000 people in the state prison system have now tested positive for COVID-19. Photo by David Bacon
A vigil participant. Photo by David Bacon
 Danny Thongsy, a former prisoner, faced deportation to Laos by Immigration and Customs Enforcement after he was released from San Quentin, but community pressure won his release. Photo by David Bacon
 Participants pray for the prisoners who have died. Photo by David Bacon
Dr. Art Chen, a doctor at Asian Health Services in Oakland, tells vigil participants, “There is no “safe” way to social distance in overcrowded prisons, operating well above 100% capacity. There is no safe way to transfer incarcerated folks from one prison to another without risking a new hot spot.”  He asked Governor Newsom, “How many more incarcerated folks will face death during this pandemic before you begin mass releases?”  Photo by David Bacon
Saabir Lockett, special projects coordinator at East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, read a passage from the Koran at the vigil.
Laura Mondragon is the wife of a prisoner, and talked about the trauma of not knowing what was happening to him.  Phone calls between prisoners and family members were cut off five days before the vigil. Photo by David Bacon
Dr. Sue Chan, a founder of Asian Health Services, came to support her son, a San Quentin prisoner. Photo by David Bacon