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San Quentin Has The Worst COVID Outbreak In California. Chanthon Bun Was There

Ninna Gaensler-Debs
Chanthon Bun, one day after his release from San Quentin Prison.

Less than a week ago, Chanthon Bun was incarcerated at San Quentin Prison. He had been granted parole and was waiting to get out. But two things stood in his way: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and COVID-19.

Coronavirus cases have exploded inside San Quentin. So far, more than 1,400 people in the prison have tested positive. Six have died. Bun, who is immunocompromised, started to show symptoms just days before his planned parole date.

"I ran around the building, saying goodbye to my friends. But most of them were bedridden ... They were all sick. But I still came around and said goodbye to every one of them."

But Bun didn’t expect parole to mean freedom. Bun, who was born in Cambodia, was admitted to the U.S. as a refugee when he was a child. He lost his immigration status when he committed a crime as a teenager more than 20 years ago. Bun expected that the prison would release him into the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He would be taken to a detention center, and await deportation to a country he left as a child.

But when he walked out of the San Quentin gates last Wednesday, ICE was not there to pick him up. Bun caught a bus and connected with his lawyer. He got a test that confirmed what he already knew: he was COVID-positive. Now, he’s recovering at an undisclosed location in the Bay Area.

Chanthon Bun is a producer for KALW’s program Uncuffed. Ninna Gaensler-Debs, who conducted this interview, was his instructor there.

KALW’s training programs in prison are funded by the California Arts Council, in partnership with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. This interview was not reviewed by CDCR.

Ninna Gaensler-Debs is a reporter and editor for Crosscurrents. Since 2012, Ninna has worn a variety of hats at KALW - she was both a producer and event planner for Localore project Hear Here. Ninna also programmed and organized the Sights and Sounds live events - two in Bayview, and most recently, one in East Oakland.