After every grueling workday, often double shifts guarding prisoners at San Quentin, 55-year-old Sgt. Gilbert Polanco would drive the hour-and-a-half home to San Jose, strip off his khaki uniform in the foyer and head straight to the shower.
He was desperately trying not to bring the killer coronavirus home from California’s Death Row.
His wife, Patricia, so worried these days that she could barely sleep, tossed his clothes into the quick wash cycle each night, no matter the hour — on hot with a splash of vinegar.
“He would say, ‘I’m scared. It’s growing,’” she said of the virus that was spreading through the notorious 168-year-old prison. “‘We’re doing everything to keep it contained, but it’s impossible.’”
Then on the last Friday night in June, Gilbert came home sick. Within days, he had infected both Patricia and their 22-year-old daughter, Selena, extending the reach of a tragedy that had started a month earlier with a colossal mistake by prison officials: an inmate transfer that would unleash the deadly virus on a destructive path through at least five California prisons that spanned the state, exploding in San Quentin into what may be the largest outbreak anywhere in the U.S.
“There’s no end to the downstream impacts of what, quite frankly, was the worst prison screw-up in state history,” said state Assemblyman Marc Levine who represents the Marin County area that includes San Quentin.
In the days after the arrival of the five-bus caravan from a state prison in the Southern California city of Chino, not only did the virus sweep through San Quentin’s 1930s-era Badger unit to its notorious Death Row, it eventually escaped the prison walls with veteran guards like Gilbert Polanco and found its way into a green-trimmed house in San Jose, now marked with a hand-drawn warning taped to the front door: “Please… No Visitors.”
In less than two months, 19 inmates have died, including at least eight on Death Row, more than half the number of condemned killers executed here in four decades. The official number of prisoners infected has reached 2,172 — about two-thirds of the prison population — but many refused to be tested.
And alongside the prisoners plagued by a pandemic in a poorly ventilated germ-ridden lockup are the 258 prison guards and other staff who got sick too — and ultimately brought it home.
“To me, it’s a catastrophe,” said Patricia Polanco, who along with her daughter has recovered from COVID-19 but is on edge every time the phone rings.
More than a month after coming home sick, Gilbert Polanco is so ill that doctors at Kaiser San Jose hospital have twice called to say he might not make it through the night. He is breathing on a ventilator and lying prone to relieve the pressure on his lungs. His kidneys are failing and he went through his seventh round of dialysis on Thursday.
“Why would they let this happen?” Patricia said, choking back tears. “If they were doing their job, they would have known this would be dangerous.”
‘Loved by San Quentin family’
The ivory fortress perched on the northern edge of San Francisco Bay is a place of lore and legend that has housed some of the most violent killers through the decades, from Charles Manson to Scott Peterson, who remains on Death Row for murdering his pregnant wife and unborn son.
Sgt. Polanco was just 21 when he started working at San Quentin. And for a decade, he and his family would literally call it home. In 1993, the couple moved to “San Quentin Village,” a neighborhood inside the prison’s main gate, when their son, Vincent, was two months old. Selena was born four years later. When Vincent learned to ride his bike on the neighborhood’s Main Street, the children of the other guards held a parade to celebrate. Patricia followed in her car honking all the way.
“My heart’s there,” said Vincent, now 26, an Army private first class who came home from South Korea when he learned his father was near death. “You felt loved by the San Quentin family.”
The Polancos keep a favorite photograph of Vincent when he was 3, a shaggy-haired boy looking out across the hillside to San Quentin’s Tower 1, waiting for his father to come home.
After more than three decades, Gilbert Polanco had plans to retire next year, continue volunteering as a football coach at San Jose’s Lincoln High School, where his two children graduated, and take the family on a deep sea fishing trip to Alaska.
“You would think that this place would show him the same love and respect he’s shown for them,” Vincent said. “You have to look at the leadership and say, ‘What are you doing?’”
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation still doesn’t have a good answer.
“Someone in CDCR believed that the oldest prison in our state, antiquated, could be an appropriate place to transfer prisoners during a pandemic,” said Levine, a Democrat. “These were brutal errors.”
He blames J. Clark Kelso, the federal-court appointed receiver who oversees medical care in the state prisons, who approved the transfer — but later acknowledged necessary precautions were not in place.
On May 30, five silver buses left the California Institution for Men in Chino east of Los Angeles. They were supposed to be life rafts of sorts, sending 121 aging, infirm prisoners away from a coronavirus outbreak, which had infected 600 and killed nine, to a safe haven prison that was coronavirus free. Over the previous two days, buses from Chino had already unloaded 66 prisoners at Corcoran state prison in the Central Valley.
Each Chino prisoner had tested negative for COVID-19 before they were cleared to make the transfers north. There was only one problem: some of them hadn’t been tested in three weeks.
When the shackled prisoners arrived at San Quentin after an eight-hour bus ride that Saturday afternoon, a crew of guards quickly spotted trouble.
“They showed up and San Quentin exploded,” said Sgt. Eddie Mann, a veteran correctional officer and friend of Polanco’s who also caught the COVID-19 virus and brought it home to his wife. “The virus would have showed up sooner or later but not like this. It’s like they just opened the door and said, ‘Hey, see if you guys can survive.’”
Virus rains down
As they disembarked the bus in their standard-issue red paper suits, some using walkers, several prisoners from a couple of buses complained of coughs and fevers.
The sick Chino inmates were immediately quarantined in San Quentin’s “Adjustment Center” — one of the few units with solid doors that houses some of the most violent prisoners on Death Row.
Within days, however, 25 inmates from the Chino transfer would test positive. By then, the rest of the transferred inmates, many of whom had been breathing in the silent plague all the way up Interstate 5, were confined in the fifth tier of San Quentin’s Badger unit. Cells up there are like the ones in old movies, with open bars that face catwalks. Once those inmates started coughing, the virus rained down on the crowded floors below.
“It was a fiasco, to be nice about it,” said Mann, who was hospitalized with COVID before returning with oxygen tanks to his Vacaville home.
Realizing the disaster they had wrought, state prison leaders on June 4 stopped all transfers from Chino. But four days later, four prisoners from San Quentin — who had tested negative within the prior week — were boarding a bus to a state prison in Susanville. Within two weeks, three of them tested positive and the virus quickly spread to more than 200 inmates at the California Correctional Center in Lassen County, then across town to the High Desert state prison when a Susanville inmate was moved there.
By then, the virus was quickly spiraling out of control at San Quentin. On June 19, 500 inmates were sick. Days later, that number had doubled and sick inmates were moved back to Badger, guards say.
“They sent them to us, thinking they were going to be clean … then bam,” Mann said. “You’re thinking in the back of your mind, who’s running the game here?”
‘My gosh, I’m going to get this’
In at least one case, an inmate who tested positive for the virus was housed in the same small cell as one who hadn’t, according to that inmate’s wife.
“He was really distraught over it,” said Shannon Leyba, wife of inmate Larry Leyba. “The cells are tiny, originally built as a one-man cell. He said they kept coming back and checking his cellmate’s temperature all the time and my husband was sitting there saying “My gosh, I’m going to get this.’”
Sure enough, he did. When Leyba ultimately tested positive, she said, he was transferred to a makeshift sick ward in the prison’s old furniture factory. His symptoms, she said, have been mild.
Her 51-year-old husband has been incarcerated at a number of prisons through the years — he’s in San Quentin for making threats at a bar — but told her he’s never experienced worse conditions.
“He would say you can just hear people in pain and screaming,” she said. “Every 10 minutes it’s ‘man down’ and he was really waiting for it to be him next.”
For two months, the prison has echoed with alerts that blare for minutes at a time as guards rush to inmates in crisis. So many ambulances were summoned in a single day that the prison nearly ran out of chase vehicles that follow ambulances to guard the inmates at the hospital, guards say.
San Rafael residents, including Assemblyman Levine, who lived between the prison and Marin General Hospital, were awakened by the sirens.
“It was constant during the first couple of weeks,” he said. “They would hear that day and night.”
Extra shifts, 16-hour days
From early on, guards handling stricken inmates were suited up with gloves, masks and blue gowns over their uniforms.
But there were so few N-95 masks in the early weeks that prisoners made cloth masks, white ones for guards and grey ones for themselves.
And the virus continued to spread. At one point, when most of the kitchen staff fell ill, the kitchen was closed and catered meals brought in.
As more and more guards called in sick, Sgt. Polanco picked up extra shifts to help out, sometimes working 80 hours in a single week, his wife said. He spent some of his last days on the job guarding sick inmates at the hospital.
Even after 16-hour days, Polanco would drive all the way home each night, across the Richmond-San Rafael bridge and down Interstate 880, to his hometown of San Jose.
Not only would Patricia worry he might fall asleep at the wheel, but with his high blood pressure and diabetes, he was especially vulnerable to the virus.
Exhausted, he would often unload his frustrations about the decisions that led to the outbreak — and little effort to stop it. He also groused about celebrities who often traipsed through before the pandemic, including Kim Kardashian who visited Death Row inmate Kevin Cooper last year and tweeted out a photo.
Selena remembers her father saying: “Where’s everyone famous now who wanted a tour to help the prisoners?”
On Sunday, prison advocates are planning their fourth demonstration outside the San Quentin gates to denounce the handling of what they call the “new death penalty” of coronavirus. On July 27, after the last two inmate coronavirus deaths, protesters chained themselves to the fence outside Newsom’s house near Sacramento.
In one of his many coronavirus news conferences, Newsom acknowledged the tragic failures at San Quentin as infections soared in early July and the state prison system’s top medical officer was removed.
“It has been incredibly frustrating,” Newsom said of the bungled inmate transfer. “That decision created the chain of events that we are now addressing and dealing with. I’m not here to sugarcoat that, I’m not here to scapegoat that.
“All of us are now accountable to address this issue and doing so in a forthright manner.”
Cough starts on Father’s Day
In their scramble to contain the outbreak, state officials built a tent city at San Quentin for sick inmates and increased testing — however, only 30% have been tested in the last two weeks. Hundreds of inmates have been released early on parole to ease chronic overcrowding and attempt social distancing, sparking concerns the virus may be traveling into the community with them. For now, the worst of the crisis appears over; infections are down from 1,637 in early July to 229 on Friday.
None of those measures, however, protected Sgt. Polanco, who is the sickest of the San Quentin guards. He started coughing on June 21, Father’s Day. He blamed allergies.
His wife still feels guilty that she didn’t insist he see a doctor right away. “I should have dragged him,” she said.
By the end of the week, he was too exhausted to go to work, so Patricia called the doctor. Five days later, he was admitted to Kaiser, where he’s been ever since.
The family said they can’t help but feel betrayed by the prison system that seemed to show such little regard for the guards as well as the prisoners. “I want accountability,” Selena said.
“We all do,” Patricia said.
As mother and daughter endured their own battles with the virus — Selena had never felt sicker — they were inundated with calls and messages and food deliveries from their “San Quentin family.” Even a few inmates asked guards to pass along well wishes.
The family isn’t used to being on the receiving end of so much help. Polanco was usually the giver, whether gathering supplies for victims of the Santa Rosa wildfires or organizing fishing derbies for his fellow officers.
“He’s our rock,” his son, Vincent, said, “and now we have to be the rock for him.”
Over the last week, doctors have been preparing the family for the worst. Patricia can’t sleep.
“I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I’m so exhausted,” she said. “But my focus now is on my husband. I hope to God he comes home to us.”