San Quentin tragedy: San Jose native prison guard dies of coronavirus

SAN JOSE — Doctors had told Sgt. Gilbert Polanco’s family that it could happen at any time. And on Sunday, the San Quentin corrections officer who contracted coronavirus within the prison walls of the nation’s worst outbreak, died.

“He was my best friend. He was my mom’s true love,” said Polanco’s 22-year-old daughter, Selena. “He was just an amazing man in every way.”


Sgt. Gilbert Polanco, a prison guard at San Quentin, from a recent family photo. (Courtesy of the Polanco Family) 

Gilbert Polanco, 55, a San Jose native, had been hospitalized since July 3 and had been intubated for weeks.

Of the 261 staff members infected by the virus at San Quentin Prison, Polanco is the first to perish and the 9th corrections employee to die of the virus in California. Of the 2,231 San Quentin inmates infected with the virus, 24 have died.

San Quentin had been virus-free until state prison officials made an ill-fated decision to transfer 121 prisoners from the state prison in Chino, where an outbreak had taken hold. Some 25 tested positive for the virus after they arrived at San Quentin on May 30 and it spread from there.

“Sergeant Gilbert Polanco is an example of the best of CDCR and his passing deeply saddens us all,” California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Ralph Diaz said in a statement Sunday. “His dedication to public service will not be forgotten.”

Acting San Quentin Warden Ron Broomfield said “our hearts are broken.”

“Sgt. Gilbert Polanco demonstrated unwavering commitment and bravery as a peace officer working the frontline every day during this devastating pandemic,” Broomfield said in a statement. “His memory is carried on in the hearts of all the men and women who continue to battle this deadly virus at San Quentin. We mourn together with his family and pray for their peace and comfort in the midst of their immeasurable loss.”

As dozens of prison guards fell ill with the virus, Polanco worked extra shifts to help out. He commuted each day from his home in San Jose. He started having a cough on Father’s Day, June 17.

The Polanco family, including his son Vincent, recently home from a U.S. Army station in South Korea, said they had felt hopeful within the last few days. Doctors at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center San Jose had started a plasma treatment and weaned him off steroids. For the first time in 10 days, they were able to position him on his back, Polanco’s wife, Patricia Polanco, had told this news organization.

“He’s not out of the woods yet,” the doctors had told her. “These are baby steps.”

But just before dawn Sunday morning, “his heart just stopped,” Selena said.

“He was everything,” Selena said from the family’s San Jose home. “I can go on forever, but it really hurts.”

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Author: Julia Prodis Sulek

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