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COVID-19 cases remain stable at Santa Rita Jail despite rising community cases

on December 17, 2020

COVID-19 infections have largely remained stable despite rising case numbers in the Bay Area, according to the latest data published by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO). At the time of writing, two people in custody have tested positive, while 11 others are symptomatic and are awaiting test results. 

The sheriff’s office has implemented a number of measures designed to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the jail since the start of the pandemic. Compared to other detention facilities in California and other states, the jail has been successful at avoiding the rampant spread seen in locations.

“If you compare us to other large scale or prison institutions, I think our plan has been pretty effective,” said ACSO spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly. “And it’s been a model that a lot of other people have come to look at and use for their agency.”

However, testimony from incarcerated people given to the National Lawyers Guild of San Francisco shows an environment where prisoners allege inadequate testing, protective equipment, and cleaning supplies, and where jail staff is widely seen as vectors for infection.

Community groups, lawyers and advocates say the jail’s testing strategy is essentially a ticking time bomb. Since the jail only tests symptomatic individuals, and does not conduct surveillance testing on deputies and staff, there is no way to know an outbreak is underway until people start getting seriously sick. And while no one at the jail has died, the people being held inside say they deserve better treatment than what they are getting.

“It’s a low standard to claim that nobody died,” said Lina Garcia Schmidt, who runs the hotline for people incarcerated at Santa Rita. “We feel that people shouldn’t have to suffer an additional punishment of becoming sick.”

While unannounced inspections regarding COVID-19 safety revealed the jail had implemented a number of control and mitigation strategies as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), reports indicate the jail was still doing things that  left it vulnerable to potential outbreaks of coronavirus infections in the incarcerated population.

What the jail is doing to keep prisoners safe

Losses within the ranks of the sheriff’s office gave the department a hard lesson about  staying vigilant about containing the virus. The ACSO has lost two people to COVID-19 so far in the pandemic: sheriff’s technician Valerie Leon and deputy Oscar Rocha. 

Rocha likely contracted the virus in Santa Rita during an outbreak in the summer when hundreds tested positive for the virus. 

Since then, Santa Rita Jail officials successfully brought the spread under control. The jail has implemented a number of best practices as suggested by the CDC guidelines for detention facilities.

“We know that COVID is very real,” Kelly said. “[Losing people to the virus] solidified our fight to make sure that we’re protecting people.”

Since the onset of the pandemic, Santa Rita has refined its outbreak response by working closely with the Alameda County Public Health Department, healthcare providers and oversight bodies.

When a new inmate arrives at Santa Rita, they are tested on their second and tenth day to screen for any infections and are placed into medical isolation for 14 days before entering the general population.

The jail has modified recreational time to keep housing units separate from each other. It’s created educational materials about COVID-19. Cells are cleaned twice a day—at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Masks are given out every Sunday during lunch. The jail uses several robots around the clock to quickly disinfect large spaces like housing units using ultraviolet light. 

According to an inspection by the Alameda County Department of Public Health, staff and prisoners had adequate access to protective equipment, soap and cleaning supplies. On July 22, the jail made it a requirement for incarcerated people and staff to wear masks. 

Surprise inspection findings

A report from Sabot Consulting, based on a series of unannounced inspections, found that Santa Rita was meeting best practices with masking and screening protocols but raised a number of concerns over the jail’s process for testing and isolating new people who enter the system.

Around 30% of the newly arrived refuse a COVID-19 test when they are first placed in jail. According to Wellpath, the healthcare provider at the jail, tests are typically refused when incoming people may be under the influence or off their medication during the intake process. In comparison, at the Monterey County Jail, which has a mandatory testing policy, only 1% of the newly arrived at that jail refuse the test.

“We can’t force people to do things with their own bodies that they don’t want to do,” Kelly said. “We’d like to work on that number. As the testing becomes better, less intrusive and more rapid, I think that 30 percent number will drop.”

The report flagged that people who refuse the test are placed in the same settings as  newly arrived people who test negative. With high rates of asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers, this strategy could potentially expose those who have tested negative 

“There is a high probability that there are a number of asymptomatic test refusers in these cohorts,” said Director of Sabot Consulting Mark Brady in the report. 

He added placing those who refuse the test in the same cohort as those who test negative would place others at risk, and make the 14-day medical isolation “ineffective.”

Sabot Consulting recommended the newly arrived who refuse a test be kept in a separate isolation setting than those who test negative. According to the report, the Alameda County Public Health Department ultimately rejected this recommendation.

The report found that women of different security and COVID-19 risk levels were all housed together in a single unit—Unit 24. This means women who are deemed to be at risk of COVID-19 are not able to be effectively isolated from the rest of the population in any meaningful way. The jail identified the at-risk population but failed to take the necessary steps to protect them.

“The whole purpose of having a medical orange unit is to isolate the vulnerable females from the rest of the general female population,” the report said.

The inspector raised concerns over the dormitory-style settings that made up some of Santa Rita’s housing units. Dormitory housing units do not have solid walls, share common spaces, toilets, sinks and showers and have no space for distancing. An outbreak in a dormitory setting has the potential to be a super spreading event. 

The report also flagged poor practices in the kitchen, where people often stand shoulder to shoulder. The outbreak in July, which infected over 100 people, was believed to have started in the kitchen. 

Overall, the Sabot report commended ACSO for the steps it has taken to mitigate the COVID-19 risk but warns that the gaps it found during its last inspection on Sept. 10 could provide the opening for a super spreading event. 

“During this inspection, I found a few lapses in enforcement that could very well result in an outbreak of the virus within the secure perimeter and result in the serious illness and/or death of staff and inmates if allowed to continue,” Brady said in the report.

What testimony from those inside say

Alameda community members, in partnership with the National Lawyers Guild of San Francisco, run a hotline people can call to report on conditions in the jail. Testimony from those phone calls contradict the reports from Sabot Consulting and the Health Department.

“They are not offering the test to everyone,” said Stephanie Navarro, who is currently detained at the jail, according to the Santa Rita Solidarity Project, which posted Navarro’s testimony online.

Testimony from others allege tests are happening infrequently and ineffectively.

“The only way we get tested is if we show symptoms. Testing is slowing down and they aren’t taking it seriously,” another person told Santa Rita Jail Solidarity in July

According to Navarro, the reports from Sabot Consulting do not accurately reflect the reality of the jail. Navarro suspects deputies and staff received prior notice about the inspection. Mask compliance is typically much lower than what the report says.

“When they arrive at the jail, the staff calls all the housing unit to say they are here,” Navarro told the hotline. “Usually the deputies are not always wearing masks and the inmates are not always wearing masks.”

Deputies and jail staff don’t wear masks consistently, according to testimony released through the hotline. Some prisoners worry the deputies could be spreading the virus.

“Staff are widely viewed as vectors for COVID-19 by prisoners, who have documented numerous instances where staff wear masks improperly by pulling them down over their nose and chin,” a report released by Santa Rita Jail Solidarity said. “Attorneys appearing in the county courthouses have also observed improper mask usage by deputies.”

Several people reported that there is a consistent lack of cleaning supplies. The soap that is available is irritating to the skin and causes rashes. One prisoner said they had to use their body wash to clean their cell. 

“We used to get soap every week in HU32, but since I came to [housing unit] 7, I haven’t gotten soap in weeks. We don’t get proper cleaning supplies here either,” someone living in Housing Unit 7 told the project. “We used to get disinfectant wipes every other week in HU32, but here we don’t get any.”

They said the jail is crowded, and social distancing is not observed by deputies and the incarcerated alike. 

“Social distancing is impossible here,” they said. “The deputies never observe social distancing, and some of them wear masks and gloves, but some don’t”

Several people reported that when they got sick, they were put into what was effectively solitary confinement. One person said he was only allowed to shower once a week. In September, another person said he was suffering a fever of 104 degrees, had difficulty breathing, chills and nausea but was only given Tylenol.

Local activist groups are pushing for the further release of prisoners from Santa Rita. Hundreds of people were released from Sana Rita Jail at the start of the pandemic. The surest way to prevent infections is to have fewer people in a jail setting.

As of Nov. 29, there are 2,210 people currently imprisoned at Santa Rita Jail. On average, 85% of the imprisoned are being held before trial—they are presumed innocent and have not been convicted of any crimes. 

By the numbers, Santa Rita is doing well compared to other jails and prisons

According to the ACSO, no incarcerated person in the jail has died, and only two have been hospitalized to date. Compared to other county jails in California and across the country, Santa Rita has far lower rates of infection, hospitalizations and deaths. In contrast, California state prisons have seen major outbreaks, and far higher rates of illness and deaths. 

Take for example, San Quentin. The state prison located in Marin County had a population of around 3,300 people prompting calls for decarceration at the prison, and has seen more than 2,000 positive cases to date. 

In Chicago, Cook County Jail became a major hotspot early on in the pandemic, with thousands infected in April. At its peak, Rikers Island in New York saw more than 1,400 of its staff come down with the virus. 

“I think you would see a massive outbreak in jail if we were being deliberately indifferent, if we weren’t cleaning, if we weren’t doing sanitation,” Kelly said. “The virus doesn’t lie.”

However, advocates say the jail has been lucky that they haven’t seen larger outbreaks since the July outbreak. Additionally, they say the data that’s published may not necessarily reflect the actual reality of the jail because so few people are tested.

“Ultimately the jail has been very lucky that nobody has gotten sicker than they have,” Schmidt said. “And they’re lucky that the outbreaks haven’t totally spread out of control.”

Since the jail only tests when people are symptomatic, the high rate of asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers means that there is a degree of uncertainty about what the numbers published by the ACSO actually means. 

“There’s pretty much no way of knowing where the infection has spread, because right now they’ve only tested 7% of the population in the past week,” said Berkeley Law student Darby Aono. And based on that protocol, most of those tests are coming from new books.”

Aono has been manually scraping the daily updates in order to compile the data into a Google Sheet workbook. The ACSO overwrites the data published on its website each time it sends an update, which effectively erases all historical data each time. Aono’s work is the only publicly available data on the jail.

Getting crowded again

Santa Rita Jail incarcerated population from March 2020 to December 16, 2020. Data compiled by UC Berkeley law student Darby Aono.

Advocates say the most effective strategy to prevent the spread of infectious diseases in jails and prisons is to release people currently imprisoned. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the total population at Santa Rita has dropped from a high of around 2,600 people to roughly 1,700 people at the peak of decarceration. 

The Aug. 25 Sabot Consulting Report recommended that Santa Rita Jail officials keep the total population to around 1,800 so that social distancing could be observed. According to the report, there is no “magic number,” but those that are the most successful at mitigating the spread of COVID-19 are the jails that are at 50% to 60% of their rated capacity.

And as data compiled by Aono shows, the total population at the jail has bounced back from a low of around 1,800 to its current total of 2,222. This leaves the jail at 83% capacity, out of a maximum of 2676 beds available, well over the recommended capacity. 

At an Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting, Undersheriff Richard T. Lucia explained that there are two reasons for the rise in the jail’s total population.

The first is that the California Department of Corrections is only accepting a small number of people sentenced to state prison. State prisons have been the sites of major outbreaks — transfers have largely been put on hold to prevent transmission. Instead of transferring people who are convicted to state prison like usual, the ACSO is holding these people at Santa Rita Jail. 

“About 140 of them are people who have already been sentenced to go to state prison,” Lucia said. “But the state prisons are not accepting them.”

Second, there has been an increase in felony arrests that do not qualify for the $0 bail, as prescribed by California’s emergency bail schedule.

“We don’t need to keep low level offenders and they don’t pose serious risk to the community. Let’s get them out of custody,” Kelly said. “But let’s be mindful also that there’s people that we need to keep in custody, that we need to get rehabilitated, that we need to get treatment that do pose threats to the community”

People are not getting the support that they need—mental health services, counseling and so many more services have been upended by the pandemic.

“Essential, vital, direly needed resources in the community are struggling right now as well,” said Jose Bernal, organizing manager at the Ella Baker Center for Human rights. “They’ve been impacted and so their ability to support people who are coming out or coming home has been impacted.”

Community outbreaks will test the jail

Kelly is cautiously hopeful that the sheriffs office has landed on an effective and safe model to prevent and mitigate COVID-19 at Santa Rita. 

“I think that we’re getting good at this,” Kelly said. “We’ve had a lot of practice with mitigating, with managing [the spread of COVID-19]. We never had to do this before.”

Across the country, case rates are skyrocketing and health systems are becoming overwhelmed. Just last  month in California, 40 counties slid back into the strictest tier for COVID-19 restrictions. 

“My fear is that the threat of this virus will be with us for the foreseeable future and as the public, anxious for their lives to return to normal, rejects the science, gets complacent, and lets down its guard, there will be huge spikes in positive cases in our cities and counties,” Brady, who inspected Santa Rita, said in the report.

As COVID-19 spreads in Bay Area  communities, it will be harder and harder to contain it in places like the jail. The test is already here—after a lull in new cases early November, case numbers are now starting to rise once again at Santa Rita Jail.

“When, not if that happens,” Bady said, “we can expect to see a statistically larger number of Covid-19 inmates booked into the [Santa Rita Jail] going forward, and we need to be prepared to combat those spikes.”

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