The old men live in cramped spaces and breathe the same ventilated air. Many are frail, laboring with heart disease, liver and prostate cancer, tuberculosis, dementia. And now, with the coronavirus advancing through their ranks, they are falling one after the next.
This is not a nursing home, not in any traditional sense. It is California’s death row at San Quentin State Prison, north of San Francisco. Its 670 residents are serial killers, child murderers, men who killed for money and drugs, or shot their victims as part of their wasted gangster lives. Some have been there for decades, growing old behind bars. One is 90, and more than 100 are 65 or older.
Executions have been on hold in California since 2006, stalled by a series of legal challenges. And they won’t resume anytime soon: In 2019, two months after taking office, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on executions and ordered that San Quentin’s death chamber be dismantled. But death has come to San Quentin nonetheless.
In recent days, five death row inmates have died after contracting COVID-19. Almost 200 others are thought to be ill with the virus, according to a Newsom administration official not authorized to speak publicly. Scores more are refusing to be tested. For now, there is no clear remedy and no end in sight.
“San Quentin’s staff — especially medical staff — is simply drowning among the chaos,” State Public Defender Mary McComb said in a letter last week to the state Senate Public Safety Committee. “San Quentin desperately needs a significant number of additional personnel, and quickly.”