Prisons Punish People for Being Sick

August 31, 2023 | Juan Moreno Haines & Katie Rose Quandt

A grainy graphic image of a laptop, prison cell, and Covid-19 cell

Juan was ahead of the curve when it came to reporting on prisons punishing people for being sick. His 2017 article in the San Quentin News revealed that prison officials routinely sent people to punitive solitary confinement units to thwart the spread of the flu.

Science shows that solitary confinement is in opposition to wellness. People subjected to it suffer downward trends in mental health stability and are at increased risk of suicide. Of course, it is important to prevent the spread of disease. But why would a prison place its most vulnerable, sick people in dirty, lonely, punitive isolation cells where they are denied programming, services, and access to communication?

These conditions were common knowledge to incarcerated folks like Juan. As a result, the well-informed rarely sought medical attention for infectious diseases — which only served to further the spread.

After the 2017 story was published, Juan felt like he had done some public good. It appeared that the treatment and housing conditions for sick patients sent to solitary confinement would improve.

But, when the 2019 flu season hit San Quentin, policy reverted back to punishing people for being sick. This time, Juan hoped to get the story out beyond the prison gates. He reported a deeper story on the use of solitary confinement for medical isolation, with the support of Solitary Watch and the Vital Projects Fund.

That story ran in The Appeal in February 2020. Little did Juan know when he began reporting it that COVID-19 was about to hit the United States. When he was interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! that month, he warned that the virus would sweep through the overcrowded San Quentin, which routinely doubles up two people into tiny cells made for one. By June, all hell broke loose when prison officials transferred people infected with COVID-19 from another prison into San Quentin. 

As COVID spread like wildfire in the facility, punishing people for being sick went on steroids. Prison officials began placing those positive for (or suspected of having) COVID-19 into San Quentin’s most isolated housing unit, the notorious Adjustment Center.

Juan knew this story needed to be told and teamed up with Katie Rose. Together, we hoped to shed light on the morally indefensible and constitutionally untenable conditions in which San Quentin was holding its sick and vulnerable. We sought investigative assistance, and Type Investigations came to the rescue with its Inside/Out Journalism Project. 

We tackled the story together. Juan found and interviewed people about their experiences with being sent to the Adjustment Center for being sick, while Katie Rose interviewed people on the outside and sorted through court records and other documents. We kept each other updated with phone calls and swapped drafts in the mail. Juan would read reporting notes and quotes from his interviews over the phone, which Katie Rose recorded and transcribed. When Juan’s unit went on frequent lockdown or other unforeseen complications arose, we were often prevented from communicating.

There was little reporting or official information about San Quentin’s use of the notorious Adjustment Center to house people in quarantine and medical isolation. Instead, we relied heavily on firsthand accounts. To bolster our reporting, Juan interviewed more than a dozen people about their traumatic experiences in the Adjustment Center. Every detail that made it into the story was corroborated by multiple people.

We also encountered predictably uncooperative prison officials. Because they would not respond to our requests and questions (other than those submitted as public record requests), we had to be extra careful in how we corroborated our claims.

Another huge challenge for incarcerated journalists is appealing to a readership that is often skeptical or dismissive of accounts from people who are incarcerated. The outside public may have preconceived notions about the type of people they are. When they read about dangerous conditions, many just think, “Well, prison is supposed to be punishment. Prison is supposed to be hard.”

Because of this mindset, and because of the barriers preventing outside journalists from reaching incarcerated sources, most articles end up as single-source stories relying heavily on the claims of prison officials.

We hope stories like ours can help break through those perceptions.

Thanks to the incredible editing and support of Aviva Shen and Nina Zweig at Type Investigations and David Dayen at The American Prospect, our story drew public attention. We discussed it on podcasts, and Juan was able to further spread the results of our investigation in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. 

Ours was the first story released as part of Type Investigation’s new Inside/Out Journalism Project, which encourages collaboration between incarcerated and non-incarcerated journalists. In this way, we hope our work can show other journalists and newsrooms that inside/outside reporting partnerships are a powerful way to tell stories that otherwise remain hidden behind bars.

These reporting partnerships don’t just help make sure people on the inside have a voice. They also lead to journalism that would otherwise be impossible. Although Juan encounters reporting barriers beyond anything non-incarcerated journalists face, his position on the inside also comes with incredible opportunities.

San Quentin is essentially a small town. Juan has lived there since 2007, telling stories about deaths, graduations, family reunification, leaving prison, and those who come back to prison to do good. He has covered every aspect of the lives of the folks he lives with. He’s like the Clark Kent of Smallville. Everybody knows him, and he’s trusted by the community because he listens to people and he tells their stories.

If he doesn’t tell their stories—like the story of people being punished for being sick—who will?

Juan Moreno Haines & Katie Rose Quandt headshots

Juan Moreno Haines is a journalist incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison; senior editor at the award-winning San Quentin News; and member of the Society of Professional Journalists. Katie Rose Quandt is a freelance journalist who writes about criminal justice, incarceration, and inequality. Their story San Quentin Is Still Punishing People for Being Sick,” published by Type Investigations, won the 2023 Media for a Just Society Award in the category of media by a person who is incarcerated.