Interview: Reporting on COVID From Behind Bars
Type Investigation’s Inside/Out Journalism Project works with incarcerated journalists to produce feature-length investigations into the criminal legal system. For the project’s inaugural investigation, produced in partnership with The American Prospect, San Quentin News editor Juan Haines and journalist Katie Rose Quandt reported on San Quentin State Prison’s continued use of its Adjustment Center to isolate people infected or exposed to Covid.
In this conversation, we talk to Juan Moreno Haines about what drew him to investigate the Adjustment Center, the challenges of reporting while incarcerated, and what it was like to report on the prison’s Covid-19 crisis as he was living through it.
Paco Alvarez: What initially drew you to investigating San Quentin for use of the Adjustment Center for COVID quarantine and isolation?
Juan Moreno Haines: Well, okay, so I got to San Quentin in 2007 and I started working with San Quentin News around 2009. I became a staff member around 2011. So living here in this community, the actual living conditions, were a concern with the overcrowding. This is all pre-pandemic kind of stuff. And so the one thing that really kind of drew my curiosity is how to deal with this disconnect between the medical department and the custody department when it came to infectious diseases. So I began just kind of like documenting and talking to people who got the flu – there was the flu, there was chicken pox, there was Legionnaires’ disease, there were staph infections. There was norovirus here. And then there was this strange – we just call it the San Quentin bug. You know, when somebody comes from another institution, they get the San Quentin, they get this weird flu like infectious disease that you have to get over.
So when it came to the adjustment center, the first time I reported on the Adjustment Center was in 2015 when several death row prisoners filed – it was six death row prisoners filed a lawsuit about how they were being treated. And this was on the heels of the hunger strike in Pelican Bay. And so there were a lot of lawsuits floating around inside California prisons simply about the living conditions. So my reporting about the Adjustment Center being used for medical isolation didn’t happen in a vacuum. And I initially began reporting about this section in San Quentin called Carson. And it’s the housing unit in what’s called South Block in San Quentin. It’s a different area and it’s used for administrative segregation. Most people know that as ‘the hole.’ And if you get into any trouble the prison officials would send you to Carson Section and pending disciplinary findings or whatever, that’s where you land. So Carson is kind of like inside of a prison, it’s like a jail. It’s kind of a holding place for people who couldn’t make it on the main line areas of an institution, pending some sort of disciplinary or safety, the person is afraid for their life –they need to isolate that person, separate them from the regular population.
In San Quentin, they were using administrative segregation for medical isolation. And so I started reporting on that. And when I met with the medical department, I was asking them, why would you send someone who’s sick to an area of the prison typically used for punishment or for isolation? Because the big deal about that is how the person is treated while they’re in that housing unit. In another words, in the mainline areas in San Quentin, people walk around freely to get to their programs, jobs, to the yard for recreation – so once, you’re like outside of your cell during normal hours, you conduct your business. It’s like a small town, just people milling about, doing whatever. But when you’re in administrative segregation, it’s a high security area. So any time you come out of your cell, you’re handcuffed behind your back, you’re wearing a white jumpsuit. You don’t mingle with the mainline population for obvious safety and security reasons. Now, San Quentin is using this for medical isolation.
So that was the dilemma when I started reporting. Fast forward to the pandemic. I just met with the head doctor for San Quentin yesterday on this same conversation. Basically, “Why are we doing this? Why are we sending people who are sick to the hole?” And it actually makes medical sense to send someone to where the Adjustment Center is because there are solid doors and you can really isolate a person. But the problem is while they’re there, they’re treated like they’re being punished. And so the medical treatment is literally a punishment. And then I was thinking about this, why in the world would this be acceptable? And I can’t answer that question, but that’s the reality. And so what drew me to write about the Adjustment Centers being used for medical isolation, is the actual counterproductive result that happens. The reality is people don’t want to report that they’re sick. People are literally afraid of doctors around here because if you’re sick, they’re going to send you to the hole, and nobody wants to do that.
Alvarez: And how did you go about developing the sources you spoke to? Were people generally open to speaking with you?
Haines: San Quentin is a small town. I’ve been here since 2007, so there’s very few people that’s been in this institution longer than me. And I’ve worked with the newspaper almost all this time and I’m like the Clark Kent of Smallville. So everybody knows me and I’m trusted by the community because I listen to people and I tell their stories and the reason why I tell these stories is because if we don’t tell our stories, the mainstream media won’t. As an example to that, the past two months, San Quentin has been going on and off of quarantines. The rehabilitative reform nature of California prisons, San Quentin being the flagship of that, it’s not functioning because of infectious diseases. And I think that the reality is, what California prison officials are telling the public, touting all the rehabilitation, which is true, all the programs, which is true. They don’t function because we’re overcrowded, and so no one’s really giving to these programs because we’re overcrowded, and when we’re overcrowded, these infectious diseases rage and all the reform efforts that are put forth are pretty much mitigated, because we’re overcrowded. So that’s the story.
Alvarez: What are some of the challenges of reporting while incarcerated? And how did those challenges impact your work on this investigation?
Haines: So the biggest challenge for reporting while incarcerated is not the prison system. It’s not, news flash. I’m not going to say that prison officials don’t care what people say about the system. But I don’t think they’re afraid or leery of stories that talk about what the conditions are because this is prison and society accepts that. So the biggest challenge for incarcerated reporters is getting the public to understand what the reality is here. Because mainstream media, like, if you talk – if you read any article from Reuters, Associated Press, not so much The San Francisco Chronicle. But typically, if you read a story about prisons, it’ll be a single source story coming from prison officials, and you won’t get the side of the people who are directly impacted by incarceration. Now, the perception of people who are incarcerated are that this is, quote unquote, where all the bad guys are. So anybody who’s incarcerated, typically speaking, it sounds like, oh, that guy is just complaining about being in prison. And prison is not supposed to be easy, prison is supposed to be punishment. Prison is supposed to be hard. And that’s true.
Nevertheless, the same people who are incarcerated are coming home. They’re coming out of prison. And the prison experience can do one or two things. It can either make you a better person or it can make you a worse person. Now, there’s a lot of policies that CDCR implements that are not good, and there’s some that are good. So for me, the challenge is being able to have access to do all the reporting about everything that’s happening behind bars and then getting those things in the public eye. There are very few incarcerated reporters doing this kind of work, and I’m gonna send a shout out to Arthur Longworth and John [J] Lennon, because these are two of my heroes because they’re doing the work, you know.
Alvarez: What are some resources that newsrooms can provide to help incarcerated journalists report and write investigative pieces like this one?
Haines: I think one of the main things is like – I was fortunate to be able to work with Katie Rose on this piece and, like, if an incarcerated reporter was teamed up with a newsroom on the outside with their resources, if they would just have access to the resources of a reporter on the outside, then that would be tremendous, particularly when it comes to that data gathering or evaluating data or even interviewing and getting online and pulling up that amount of information.
And then finally, just funding incarcerated writers is tremendous. I mean, it’s incredible because, the financial independence and stability allows the writers to just do their job. So just funding these types of journalists is incredibly rewarding to journalism. It’s much needed.
Alvarez: You’ve been covering the COVID outbreak in San Quentin since the beginning. What was it like to be living through the crisis as you reported on it?
Haines: It was traumatizing. One word to describe it is traumatizing. You’re trapped inside of an unventilated building that is typically held at about 150% designed capacity. In a place where you’re going to get sick, people are dying all around you. Your friends. One of my best friends died during the pandemic. Mike Hampton – I was at his wedding. This guy was just such a great human being. And he was on his way out of prison when he died from COVID. Stories like that over and over. I mean, my friends died because prison officials didn’t want to do the right thing. And a lot of these decisions were purely political.
And I can guarantee you, a prison like San Quentin, where people are going to introspective programs to deal with their issues, to deal with who they used to be and who they are now, typically incarcerated 20, 25, 30 years in their 60 and 70 or in retirement age. And for political reasons you’re saying that, “oh, yeah, you’re still dangerous, you’re a threat to society.” You’re saying that about a person who hasn’t committed a violent act in decades, not because they’re locked up, but because they’ve truly made changes in their lives. And I’m talking about Mike Hampton. If he had walked out of this prison alive in downtown San Francisco, his big smile and gracious life would have blessed a lot of people. Lo and behold, you wouldn’t have known he spent a couple of decades in prison because he changed, turned his life around.
But human beings are not given that second chance, that opportunity, for pure political reasons. Politicians are afraid to do the right thing when it comes to incarceration in the United States. It’s an easy political victory to say “I’m tough on crime, I’ll put that burglar behind bars.” And mainstream media doesn’t help the matter by continually connecting crime as a huge problem in the United States. And it is. But it’s out of context from the reality that there’s a lot of people who just need help and that the mental health crisis that this country is going through, the addiction problem that this country has. Tackling these problems at the end of crime is not going to solve addiction or mental illness. COVID reporting here for me was traumatizing because I lived through it. I got COVID. I was left for dead. Literally left for dead.
I’m not even talking about the lawsuit that was filed against CDCR officials where the top appeals court judge in California, Anthony Kline, said what San Quentin prison officials did to its incarcerated population was morally indefensible, and constitutionally untenable, and ordered the prison officials to reduce the population to levels that are manageable. They didn’t do that and they’re still not doing it. And manageable, in objective terms from a medical perspective, everybody here knows that if we were living one person per cell, it would be a lot healthier. But that’s not the policy here. You have two people living in a jail, 4 by 10, smaller than your average parking space. And so if your cellmate gets sick, you can guarantee you get sick. I’ve gotten every disease, every infectious disease at San Quentin. Except for chicken pox, because I was vaccinated. I had Legionnaires’, infectious norovirus multiple times. I got COVID. I get the flu every season, even though I get a flu shot. It’s because this place is too crowded. Overcrowded. The only people that can help us, the incarcerated population, save us, are the courts, and they fail to do it because politicians definitely won’t.
Alvarez: My last question is, have you received any feedback or retaliation from inside?
Haines: No. For me, any type of retaliatory action against me is just another story, so no. I get, like, snide remarks and this and that, but at the same time I get praise from prison officials, not for the critical stories that I write, but I also write about restorative justice and drug treatment programs – policies that are doing a tremendous amount of good to the incarcerated population. I’m your regular small town reporter and I’m going to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly. There are a few good things happening behind these, and the biggest thing is the drug treatment program. And that program literally saved lives.
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