Pandemic in Prison: Elsie Lee, San Quentin

Earlier this summer, San Quentin State Prison was the site of one of the country’s largest COVID outbreaks. Elsie Lee is a co-founder of Sistas’ with Voices, an advocacy group formed to speak against inhumane conditions in California prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her husband, Wilbert Lee is currently incarcerated in San Quentin. Elsie spoke to our reporter Lucy Kang. The interview has been edited.

“My husband is Wilbert Lee, currently housed at San Quentin State Prison, serving a 40 year to life sentence and has been incarcerated for 23 years for essentially a non-violent crime without the enhancements.

He’s a good family man. We’ve been married since February 14th of 2015, and we’ve been together since February of 2013. So almost eight years together and six years married.

Before the pandemic, we would get daily calls, maybe three, four times a day. I would hear from him once in the morning, once in the afternoon, maybe twice at night. Now it’s days before I’m being able to hear from him. I was able to get up on a Saturday or Sunday to go visit. And now I haven’t physically touched my husband since February 15th.

We generally go to visit on Christmas and New Year’s. And unfortunately, because of the virus, we won’t be able to spend Christmas with him or New Year’s, which is actually his birthday. So those has been nice at least to be able to spend his birthday with him, to be able to get the cupcakes out the vending machine with a little ice cream and make us our own little birthday cake and sing happy birthday. We’re not able to do that this year. And it’s heartbreaking because that’s something that we’ve looked forward to for the last almost eight years

I got a letter on July 2nd, and in the letter he said that he tested positive for COVID. And I couldn’t believe it. Like I wasn’t getting phone calls and I just assumed that it was because of the lockdown, we were in the height of the infection, especially over there, that that’s why I wasn’t getting the phone calls. 

To get the letter was like, oh, wow. And then to continuously call CDCR and San Quentin and still right now to this day, I haven’t received a return phone call from anyone to tell me of his condition, which is something that a lot of families are enduring. We’re getting a letter or someone’s calling to tell us that our loved one has the virus, but then when we try to call the facility, there’s nobody that’s around that’s willing to talk to us. It’s all running around at that point.

He said that it originally started, that he was having a headache. And then the headache went to he lost his taste and his smell. And then that’s when they told him that he tested positive. But now there’s long term effects where they’re telling him that they think that he has asthma.

This is somebody that has never had asthma in their 50 years of life. And now you want to tell me that I have asthma after I’ve contracted this virus. I mean, he’s going still to the doctor, putting in sick call slips to go to the doctor, telling them that he can’t breathe. I’m trying to work out. I can’t work out because I’m having shortness of breath. And he’s still having that in December.  

He’s mentally stressed. There’s a lot going on, a lot of anxiety and depression and it’s just because he don’t know, it’s an unknown. Like, I don’t know if I’m going to catch it again. I don’t know if the person that’s laying next to me has this virus. Some people’s still going out to work. They’re not separating the people that go out to work. So it’s a lot that he’s dealing with on his mental. And then I have nothing to keep me occupied throughout the day, but to sit here and be, hey, do I have COVID again? Am I going to catch COVID again?

I am very concerned about his mental wellbeing for that simple fact, he’s a very strong person. I’ve never had to deal with him no matter what it was that he was going through, no matter what was going on at the facility, I’ve never seen him down to this point where all he thinks about is the worst. And the worst is I’m going to die. 

You know, I’ll never forget when the virus first came out. And he used to tell me, baby I need you to wear your mask and make sure that the boy got his mask on and make sure you guys are washing your hands. And my comments to him was, I’m not worried about me. I know my quality of care here is a whole lot different from being your quality of care there.

I was angry. I was upset. I was scared mostly because like I said before, he’s 50. He’s not young. He may appear to be healthy, but I don’t think that he’s as healthy as CDCR would like to make it seem to be.  

So there’s a lot of people that he do know that is being transferred. He personally hasn’t been to the committee and told that he was transferring, but a lot of those that he do know are being transferred.

I only live in Northern California simply because this is where my husband is housed. So they take my husband up tomorrow and transfer him, and that means that I’m going to have to pick up my family and we’re going to have to transfer to whatever city he’s going to too.

Which is stressful because not only do I have to figure out where we’re going to live and how we are going to make money. I also have an autistic child that I would have to reset up services for in another county because CDCR thought that it was more reasonable to transfer instead of release.

So now is it like, are we going to get a word that one of your friends that’s being moved to Corcoran or being moved to Valley State, are we going to get word that they caught the virus and they didn’t make it too?

He’s losing people left and right. A lot of the 28 people, I think ten of the 28 people that passed away at San Quentin, he’s personally known them.

I don’t know if angry is the word that I want to use. I probably would go a little deeper than that.

I’m more livid at the way that they’re being treated because it’s like they’re human beings, regardless of the crime that they committed. The least that you can do is keep them safe. And you’re not. And you’re not even attempting to try to keep them safe. You just moved 60 inmates, 60 medically vulnerable inmates from San Quentin yesterday or on Monday. Every facility within the state of California has a positive case. So how can you just transfer 60 individuals to a different facility? So it’s like, where are you going to care?

Why aren’t you doing the releases? The only way that we’re going to mitigate the spread is if we do like the professionals and the doctors and the scientists are telling us to do and get the population down by 50%.

And despite my husband having COVID, despite any of that, this is wrong. I don’t wish this on nobody, to have to live through the pain that CDCR is putting a lot of these families through.”

Lucy Kang is a features reporter with KPFA Radio. Follow her on Twitter at @ThisIsLucyKang

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