In California prisons, only those with essential jobs have been allowed to work since mid-March. There are no stimulus or unemployment checks for incarcerated people. For Michael Calvin Holmes, who is serving a life sentence at San Quentin State Prison, the extended lack of an income threatens to leave him and many others without critical resources. “I’m living off the state,” the 62-year-old Black man said.

Those with essential jobs, which include kitchen workers, porters, hospital workers, and those critical to manufacturing key products for the prison industrial authority, can earn money to shop at the canteen monthly. Meanwhile, most clerks, media workers, tutors, and incarcerated counselors aren’t considered essential, nor can they work from their cages.

Before sheltering-in-cell, Holmes earned 45 cents an hour in a computer code training program known as Code 7370. After a 55% deduction for court-imposed restitution fines, he netted about $26 a month. With his paycheck, he was able to purchase canteen items the state doesn’t provide, like deodorant, toothpaste, and certain foods. 

“My last store buy was in April and it was for $16 because I couldn’t go to work,” Holmes said. Holmes mentioned that he has enough hygiene products to last until mid-June but doesn’t know what he’ll do after that.

Moreover, without an income, Holmes can’t purchase food items to make up for the stuff on the state menu he can’t eat, which includes potatoes, bananas, tomatoes, pears, or anything with potassium.

“I have chronic kidney disease and I’m close to [needing] dialysis,” he said. “Plus, I’m an insulin-dependent diabetic so I have to be careful about what I eat.”

People in prison often rely on their loved ones to send them money or packages. Holmes, a three-striker serving his fifteenth year of a life sentence for robbery fueled by drug addiction, hasn’t heard from his sister or daughter in over a year. “I don’t even have their numbers anymore,” he said. “I wouldn’t ask them for anything because they have their own problems with what’s going on out there.”

Holmes has received a few items as a gift from the Prison University Project, which runs out of San Quentin. They gave everyone incarcerated at San Quentin care packages containing three food items, one bar of soap, a few stamps and envelopes, a writing pad, and two pens. The food will last a couple of days.

As bad as Holmes needs a way to obtain resources, going back to work without a vaccine worries him. In addition to chronic kidney disease and diabetes, his liver is still recovering from defeating Hepatitis C. “It’s very scary at night because we don’t have the best care in here,” Holmes said. “This environment incubates diseases, which makes you nervous to tell them you have symptoms because they’ll put you someplace with no circulation.”

People with flu-like symptoms at San Quentin are isolated to protect the general population. Several incarcerated people have reported being taken to the hole until the results of COVID-19 test came back negative and symptoms subsided.

Holmes, who stands about 5 feet, 4 inches tall, says he’s looking on the bright side of his situation. He sees his enforced diet as a way to lose 20 pounds so his kidneys won’t have to work so hard. He hasn’t used drugs in 15 years, so addiction isn’t an issue. Also, he’s used his cell time to keep up his studying for the coding program. And importantly, he has toilet paper.

Rahsaan “New York” Thomas

Rahsaan “New York” Thomas is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, where he co-founded the nonprofit Prison Renaissance. Under normal conditions, he co-hosts and co-produces the Pulitzer Prize-nominated...