Inside the COVID-19 Outbreak that Ravaged San Quentin’s Death Row

Twelve death row prisoners at California’s San Quentin prison have died from COVID-19 or complications related to the disease, nearly as many people as the state has executed in the last 44 years. The broader outbreak at San Quentin has infected over two-thirds of all prisoners — 2,237 men total — and left 26 dead. Nearly 300 employees have also tested positive. The lone staff fatality was Sgt. Gilbert Polanco, a corrections officer nearing retirement after 34 years at San Quentin.

San Quentin’s death row COVID-19 outbreak began after prison officials transferred in sick inmates from a known hotspot. The virus spread like wildfire, fueled by overcrowding, dungeon-like architecture, and policies that discouraged people from being isolated if they became sick. VICE News spoke to four prisoners on San Quentin’s death row, as well as the families Polanco and a prisoner who died, about what happened during the outbreak.

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