a crowd of people in masks on a street, some holding signs
Kat Morgan (bottom left in pink hat), who helps lead Jewish prayer services at San Quentin State Prison, participates in protest outside the prison on June 28, 2020. (Photo/Antwan Williams)

Covid-19 outbreak at San Quentin spurs Jewish activism, support

On March 13, Kat Morgan led her last Shabbat service inside the walls of San Quentin State Prison before the pandemic shut everything down. During that service, she and her co-leaders divided the incarcerated participants into small groups to share things that bring them joy during darker moments.

She hasn’t been inside the prison since.

“These people are experts in resilience,” said Morgan, who is director of operations and human resources at Urban Adamah, the Jewish urban farm in Berkeley. “They shared gratitude for things like prayer, meditation and eating a cookie. Some of them said that even waking up is a joy that they’ve made it to see another day. It was profoundly moving, given the context.”

Now, that resilience is being sorely tested, as San Quentin is the epicenter of one of the worst outbreaks of Covid-19 in the country. A reported third of the San Quentin population has tested positive, and over 100 incarcerated people have been moved to local hospitals, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Among the 3,700 still inside the prison, there are now more than 1,400 cases, plus 165 among the staff and six deaths as of July 6, the Chronicle reported.

San Quentin, located on the bay in unincorporated Marin County, is the oldest prison in the state. It also houses the only death row in California, though no executions have taken place since 2006. Despite its violent past, its location in the progressive and heavily populated Bay Area means hundreds of volunteers have come inside regularly, offering all kinds of programs that are considered helpful for rehabilitation.

Incarcerated Jews have received support over the years as well. Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael has long brought Jewish programming to the prison, for example. But California’s shelter-in-place order to stop the spread of the coronavirus put a halt to all of those programs. There have been no visitors of any kind allowed inside since mid-March.

Despite its overcrowded conditions — at least 20 percent over its official capacity — San Quentin initially had managed to protect both those incarcerated and its staff from the coronavirus.

a white woman with dark blonde hairs wearing a pink shirt that says "Roses are red, doritos are savory, the U.S. prison system is legalized slavery"
Kat Morgan, who works at Urban Adamah, has been leading Jewish services at San Quentin for eight years.

But on May 30, according to the Chronicle, state authorities transferred 121 people incarcerated at the Chino prison to San Quentin without first testing them for the virus. The virus quickly spread.

The chapel where Jewish services traditionally took place is now a ward for Covid-19 patients, and tents for more patients have been set up in the yard, said Rabbi Paul Shleffar, the Jewish staff chaplain there, whose time inside has been reduced to two or three days a week.

“My perception was that before this, both inmates and staff felt that everyone here was doing a good job of looking out for us,” he said. “But when the transfer happened, it was a whole different story. The mood shifted.”

Shleffar has been the Jewish chaplain at San Quentin since 2015. His congregation numbers about 200 people. Many of them are not born Jewish. Shleffar’s policy is to not ask questions or pass judgment. If someone shows an interest in what Judaism has to offer, that person is welcome.

“Many of them are searching, trying the various paths to a relationship with God, and trying to understand the situation they find themselves in,” he said.

Shleffar said each day is different and everything is constantly in flux. All staff members are tested for the virus once a week.

“We’re trying to adapt best we can, so since we can’t gather, I’ve been putting different teachings and sermons on the closed-circuit TV system,” he said. If incarcerated people request an in-person visit, Shleffar is allowed to see them, outside their cell, wearing protective gear.

He said he puts “extra messages of support” in his weekly Torah flyers.

“This last one I included Psalm 27 — which hails God and the protection God offers — as well as other healing blessings, which seemed appropriate,” he said.

Rabbi Paul Shleffar has been San Quentin’s staff Jewish chaplain since 2015.
Rabbi Paul Shleffar has been San Quentin’s staff Jewish chaplain since 2015.

With calls now restricted to keep people from congregating at phones, “the men are feeling cut off,” Shleffar said, “but my perception is they don’t feel they’re forgotten about, they know the world is watching.”

Morgan, who has been leading services as a volunteer for eight years now, is one of those watching. She participates in regular organizing calls held by local prison-reform groups.

She first visited the prison at the invitation of members of the prison’s Jewish community who heard about Urban Adamah from the former Jewish chaplain. Morgan, who is also a singer/songwriter, was joined by a few others in leading a service and they were asked to return. They bring their instruments with them.

Morgan was at San Quentin on June 28 to participate in a rally outside the prison walls.

Calling it “a major public health crisis,” Morgan said protesters called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to visit San Quentin to see conditions for himself. Across America, prisons are the sites of some of the worst outbreaks of Covid-19.

“State leaders visit crisis areas all the time,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anyone who could see what’s unfolding there and think it’s being handled appropriately.”

Family members on the outside don’t know if their loved ones are sick or not, according to Morgan, because of the restriction on calls.

“I believe in second chances, especially for people who didn’t get first ones,” Morgan said, paraphrasing the words of Adnan Khan, a formerly incarcerated person and executive director of the Oakland nonprofit Re:Store Justice. “If something isn’t done now, there are thousands of people in that facility who deserve a second chance but won’t get one because they’ll get ill and die.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."