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San Quentin prison sergeant dies of COVID-19

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 8/10/2020 By Megan Cassidy
a man standing on a sidewalk: San Quentin Sgt. Gilbert “Bobby” Polanco, 55, died Sunday after a battle with COVID-19. He is the first San Quentin staffer to lose his life from the virus. © California Department Of Corrections And Rehabilitation

San Quentin Sgt. Gilbert “Bobby” Polanco, 55, died Sunday after a battle with COVID-19. He is the first San Quentin staffer to lose his life from the virus.

A veteran sergeant at San Quentin died Sunday morning after a weeks-long battle with COVID-19, marking the first employee to be felled by an outbreak that has ravaged California’s oldest state prison.

Sgt. Gilbert “Bobby” Polanco was 55.

Polanco was first hired in July 1987 as a correctional officer and retired from a disability in May 2005, according to prison officials. He was reinstated in January 2011 as a correctional sergeant, a job he held until his death.

“Our hearts are broken as we awaken to the news of the passing of our beloved Sergeant, colleague, and friend,” acting San Quentin Warden Ron Broomfield said in a statement. “Sgt. Gilbert Polanco demonstrated unwavering commitment and bravery as a peace officer working the frontline every day during this devastating pandemic.”

A Facebook post from CCPOA San Quentin, the correctional officers union, said union officials have requested the chief deputy warden activate peer support.

“If you are religious or spiritual please pray for the family, immediate and professionally,” the post stated. “COVID-19 is not a hoax. Don’t politicize it. Don’t let Gil’s life be in vain.”

Polanco was one of the 261 employees at San Quentin to test positive for the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. The outbreak has additionally infected more than 2,100 incarcerated people at San Quentin — about two-thirds of the entire population — taking the lives of 24.

The virus has killed nine prison staff members and 53 prisoners at the state’s 35 institutions. At San Quentin, there are still 157 incarcerated people and 174 employees battling active cases.

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Ralph Diaz said Polanco was “an example of the best” of the department.

“His dedication to public service will not be forgotten,” Diaz said in a statement. “On behalf of a grateful department we extend our prayers of comfort and condolences to the Polanco family during these difficult times.”

As coronavirus outbreaks erupted at prisons across the state this spring, San Quentin had emerged as something of a success story. Despite the facility’s aging structure and open-facing cells, the prison had beat back the virus for all of April and May, counting no cases among its incarcerated population.

But that streak of good fortune was derailed in early June, after a mistake from prison officials that would soon prove fatal. In an attempt to spare vulnerable prisoners from a fast-moving outbreak at California Institution for Men in Chino, 121 men were bused from the Southern California facility to San Quentin.

But prison officials did not test the transferred men immediately before they were sent north, and then intermingled them with San Quentin’s population in the South Block. Within weeks, the virus had overrun the entire campus, including the prison’s infamous Death Row.

Prison officials would later admit that 25 of the Chino men tested positive immediately upon arrival at San Quentin.

Megan Cassidy is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: megan.cassidy@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @meganrcassidy

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