[Pnews] View from Death Row: We Are the Living Dead
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sun Aug 9 19:08:16 EDT 2020
from Death Row: We Are the Living Dead
August 5, 2020
For weeks, prisoners at San Quentin have been sick and dying as the
epidemic spread rapidly in the crowded, stacked cells. Then the author fell
People hold up a banner while listening to a news conference outside San
Quentin State Prison Thursday, July 9, 2020, in San Quentin, Calif. A group
of legislators, advocates, academics and public health officials gathered
at San Quentin State Prison to discuss a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility.
[AP Photo/Eric Risberg]
*By Kevin Cooper <http://kevincooper.org/>* / Original to Scheerpost
DEATH ROW, SAN QUENTIN STATE PRISON — We men and women who unfortunately
have been sentenced to death and sent to death rows here at San Quentin
State Prison (for men) and the Central California Women’s Facility at
Chowchilla have often been referred to as the “walking dead” or “Dead Man
Walking,” as made famous by the 1995 movie, starring Sean Penn and Susan
Sarandon, about a death row inmate.
We were called these names long before the COVID-19 pandemic came upon us
all, seemingly out of nowhere. After it came on the scene, we death row
inmates got a double dose of death.
Since May 1985, when I first arrived at San Quentin, I have been living
under the constant threat of manmade death, state-sanctioned torture and
murder, first by way of the gas chamber, then later by lethal injection, as
well as living in one of the most violent prisons in the entire world,
where inmates stabbing each other for any type of reason was once the norm.
In 2004, when I came within 3 hours and 42 minutes of being executed by
lethal injection, I was at least able to prepare myself as best I could for
this crime against humanity that was going to take place against my Black
body by prison guard executioners trained to do this by burning me alive
from the inside with their poisonous lethal injection drugs.
In my mind, I thought, and I prayed, that I could honestly prepare myself
for this … But could I really?
Not even that near death experience could prepare me for this COVID-19
pandemic and all that it brought with it. The uncertainty of everything
concerning one’s health, and or even death is unnerving. At least when I
was facing manmade execution, I was told exactly the day, date and time
that my life was going to be taken. But that’s not the case with the
Every little thing that happens like a cough for example, or a sneeze, or
anything like that makes you wonder, *Do I have the coronavirus? *This is a
form of psychological torture, just as executions and knowing what is going
to happen to you is, but it’s also very different.
Then one starts to wonder, as I did, about the men who live in the cages on
either side of the 4½-by-11-foot cage I live in, number 82, and in cage 81
and 83 there are other men, and then men on their further side. While this
type of mental torture is happening in one’s mind, the reality and truth
about what has and is taking place must be dealt with as well.
According to the prison grapevine, certain news stations, and a friend from
outside, 21 inmates have died of COVID-19, 11 of them from death row as of
July 29. Plus, there have been 2,166 confirmed COVID-19 cases here, and
more than 200 prison guards are among the 254 staff who tested positive.
Fewer than 90 have returned to work, and now there’s a staff shortage at
Many of these cases and deaths were preventable, and the chief medical
officer of the state prison system was removed from his job for this and
other reasons, according to certain prison guards and news reports.
The prison furniture factory, where inmates from general population work to
make furniture, has been closed and converted to a hospital for inmates in
general population who need to be hospitalized, but not in a hospital
outside the prison.
There have been huge tents set up on the general population yard for triage
and for whatever medical needs inmates have. The prison kitchen where food
was cooked to feed the entire prison, including death row, was closed
because of this epidemic. Inmates were served baloney and cheese
sandwiches, then the prison hired an outside food vendor to deliver
truckloads of prepared food in plastic and non-plastic trays for all
inmates in this prison, and now we’re back to the kitchen food being served
on paper trays.
This prison is truly on “lockdown” and the only time we inmates on death
row leave the cages that we are assigned to is for medical and dental
visits or to be taken to the shower three times a week. Telephone
privileges were temporarily taken away, the only prison in the state where
this happened. Supposedly the prison medical staff were afraid that we can
get the coronavirus from handling the telephone. Then we heard on local NBC
news that the main reason was because inmates were calling their families
and the news media with information about what was going on in here.
While living this unbelievable life under these unbelievable circumstances,
I remembered that in early 2020 my friend and lead attorney in my case told
me about an illness that he had. He told me how he hurt and all he went
through, though it may not have been the coronavirus. I remember thinking
to myself that he was exaggerating as to the horrible experience that he
went through concerning his illness, nothing could be that bad, and I said
to myself that he was getting soft in his old age. After all, “I’m rough,
I’m cheap steak tough, I can handle anything,” was my mentality.
In late June 2020, I called my attorney and apologized to him for thinking
that he was exaggerating about how bad he felt and all that he experienced
because of that illness. I told him that I honestly thought that he was
truly exaggerating when he told me about the things he went through.
Why did I apologize to him? Because in the middle of June, I began to get
ill as well. But because I kept getting both my body temperature checked,
and my oxygen levels checked every other day by the prison medical staff,
and was told that I’m good and everything is fine, I knew that I didn’t
have the virus and wasn’t thinking about anything else as far as illnesses
go. I was focused on not getting the coronavirus.
Every test I took I was good, no high temperature, good oxygen levels, but
I kept feeling worse with each passing day. I was still doing everything
that I do in this cage, from reading to writing to working out and speaking
to my people on the phone, all the time getting worse, but not having a
temperature and still having good oxygen levels.
One day, I just fell onto the bed and lay there for hours. Dozing in and
out of sleep, I kept hearing inmates calling out, “Man down!” “Man down” is
an alarm system we inmates use to notify the prison guards when an inmate
in a cell is unresponsive or sick. I kept hearing inmates call “man down”
and giving their cell number and tier.
And this went on for a week straight, all day and all night long, inmates
were calling “man down” somewhere in the unit. When this happens, the alarm
in the unit goes off, which is a loud buzzing sound that can be heard all
over the unit and outside the unit. Then the officers go to the cell where
the inmate is down. Some inmates can walk out on their own, sometimes the
medical staff has to be called and they are taken out on a gurney. Some of
these men ended up in the hospital.
There are five open-air tiers in the East Block — death row — with 52
cells, a total of 260 cells; each tier has two showers. On each tier, 26
cells on one side face an equal number across from them. One side has
sealed windows that face the prison yard, and across the way the cells have
a view of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. That is the view from my cell on
the fourth tier. So, when an inmate yells “man down” anywhere in the
block, it can be heard throughout death row.
The east block of death row at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County,
California. [Photo by Eric Risberg/AP Photo]
If we inmates do not look out for each other by calling “man down,” inmates
can lie in their cage without getting any help for lord knows how long. And
that might cost somebody his life. Especially if it is after 4 PM because
at 4 PM is standing count—and if we don’t stand for the count, they will
want to know why, and after that, there is no count till 4 PM next evening.
I did not want to call out “man down” for myself out of fear that they
would remove me from this cage
take me to who knows where in this prison for some type of isolation
purpose. The prison has put flu and COVID-19 patients in solitary
confinement in the solitary housing unit, or SHU, with no phones and few
I made myself get up at 4 PM for mandatory standing count; I then lay back
down. I didn’t eat dinner, or breakfast, lunch or dinner the following
days. Exactly how many days I don’t know. I only got out of bed for
standing count, temperature and oxygen checks, which remained good, and to
use the phone. I would man up and use the phone and talk to everyone like
nothing was wrong (although some said later my voice was weak.)
I did not want to make anyone in my world and on my team and in my life
worry about me anymore than they already were, especially knowing that they
have their own lives, families and everything else, including worrying
about catching the virus themselves.
So, I pretended that everything was good with me, but I was hurting and
hurting badly. Each and every day I was getting worse. I went and reread
the information concerning the symptoms of the coronavirus that the prison
handed out, and I did not have any of those symptoms, yet I was in bad
My body started to hurt, and I started to vomit. I couldn’t keep even water
down, and the water from the tap was so warm that all I kept thinking of
was ice water.
I wanted ice water so badly! Ice water is contraband in this prison. You
can’t get ice unless a doctor prescribes it, like if an inmate hurts his
ankle playing basketball and the doctor gives him a prescription to put ice
on it. At one point a doctor came by and I begged him for ice, but he
turned away and I did not get the ice.
I had spoken to many of my friends on the phone shortly before this. My
attorneys and I spoke to Kim Kardashian, a supporter, to give her an update
on my efforts to get an innocence investigation to present new evidence in
my case, and I wished her luck on her studies for the baby bar, a precursor
to her taking the state bar exam.
Everything was good, then it was all bad, seemingly just that fast.
I started to develop a sour taste in my mouth. It was nasty, and all I
could do is wash my mouth out with mouthwash. I could not get rid of that
sourness inside my mouth and in my throat and stomach. All the while, I was
throwing up, hurting with body aches, and having no medication other than
Tylenol and ibuprofen on hand.
I contacted a couple of my friends and asked them to send word out that I
was ill. They did that, and one of them posted it on my Facebook page and
word got out quickly. I could no longer afford not to let my people know
about my illness for fear that I may actually die. When my friend in New
Zealand, Dr. Kate Orange learned about my illness, she told me by way of my
friends not to take ibuprofen without having food in my stomach. I couldn’t
eat, but I never took the ibuprofen because I couldn’t keep anything down.
I also found out, mainly because I was not the only inmate who was down at
this time, that we all had the flu, and a bad case of it. Medical staff
were asking inmates about it, but none ever asked me, and I did not tell
them. I felt better emotionally knowing I had the flu instead of the
coronavirus, yet the flu kills many people every year as well, and I did
not think of that during this point in time. I just knew I did not have the
common symptoms of COVID-19.
Being in prison is bad enough for one’s health, especially when the prison
health system in this state of California was at one time among the worst
in this country, so much so that it was under federal court orders to fix
all that was wrong because inmates, all poor, were suffering and dying due
to lack of adequate health care. We on death row see our plight ten times
worse than the regular prison population because after all, we are on death
row, deemed unworthy of life by society, and health care, especially good
and consistent health care, not only saves lives, it gives life to the
lifeless, people like me who are condemned to death.
In all of this pain and uncertainty about what was happening to me, I
honestly felt like the living dead, even though I have no real idea of what
“living dead” is, other than a zombie, or oxymoron. Yet I did not feel
alive, and in fact I started to lose weight, about 10 or so pounds. My
thighs got really thin, as did my legs, and my stomach shrank; by not being
able to eat, I could not maintain the bodyweight that I had.
I stayed in bed all day long and still kept getting worse, hurting and
telling myself not to give up, that I was going to make it, that I have too
much to live for not to make it, that I have people who care about me,
people who are working hard to get me out of this horrible place, people
who are standing by my side fighting with me and for me to prove my
innocence. I couldn’t give up and let them down.
While my body was getting weaker, my spirit and will to survive got
stronger. Then, just as the illness came out of nowhere and kicked my ass
in this cage, I began to feel it leave little by little. I began to feel
better. It was after I went through this most painful health experience and
started to feel better, I called my attorney and apologized to him because
he was not exaggerating about anything. We laughed, and he was honestly
happy that I was feeling better and on the mend.
I am scared not only of this coronavirus, but also of this prison health
care system. So much so that I did not tell them I had what we all think
was the flu. I did get a flu shot last year, as I do every year, and I hope
it helped in ending what I had.
Now I am back to living this inhumane experience in this inhumane place,
still living under the threat of manmade death by lethal injection, and by
mother nature with this pandemic, and the flu. All kill and will continue
to do so. Which way is worse? I do not know, nor do I want to find out.
Sometimes living on this modern day plantation I do not even know which way
is up because I have been down for so long. Living in a place where I have
no say about anything, control over nothing, a place where ice water is
contraband, and there is no clean air inside this building called East
Block where I am forced to live against my will.
This place where loneliness is my best friend and death is my constant
companion makes me wonder: Am I am going to make it out of here alive—or
dead in a body bag? There has to be more than this to what we call life.
Living by one’s animalistic nature cannot be living life, and if one is not
truly living, then aren’t they dead?
So, you tell me, am I living, or am I dead?
*Editor’s Note: On July 2, after the worst of his illness, Kevin Cooper
told his attorney that he had tested negative for COVID-19. Then, a July 20
test result was positive, and he was told he is asymptomatic. He is under
quarantine until Aug. 13. Meanwhile, he has returned to his five-day-a-week
workout regimen of 16 calisthenics, completing each exercise 250 times.*
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