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Bad design kills: Why COVID-19 spread like wildfire at one of America’s worst prisons

In California’s San Quentin State Prison, the toll of the coronavirus has been staggering. More than two-thirds of the prison’s roughly 3,200 inmate population has been infected with the virus, and 25 people there have died, including one guard. According to experts, a major reason the outbreak has been so extreme in San Quentin and at other prisons is their design.

Large residential blocks with hundreds of inmates and little ventilation have exacerbated the spread of COVID-19 in San Quentin, according to a recent report from Amend, a prison transformation program at the University of California, San Francisco, and the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. And though San Quentin dates back to the 1800s, some of its design problems are evident in more recent facilities throughout the state prison system.

Two of San Quentin’s main facilities house 800 men each in tiered blocks of single- and double-occupancy cells five levels high. With no solid walls or floors between them and barred doors exposed to exterior walkways, these tiered spaces are containers of shared air with little or no ventilation. “Windows have been welded shut and the fan system does not appear to have been turned on for years,” the report notes. These are prime conditions for a respiratory pathogen to spread.

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