By Linh Nguyen
SAN FRANCISCO — In response to the first confirmed case of coronavirus of an incarcerated person in the San Francisco County Jail system, San Francisco Public Defender Mano Raju calls for increased efforts to keep people out of jails, provide incarcerated people with proper hygiene and health supplies and provide temporary housing for the homeless in private hotel rooms.
The first confirmed positive case of COVID-19 in the San Francisco County Jail system was announced on Apr. 16, 2020. Two weeks prior, on Mar. 30, 2020, the public defender’s office announced that the jail population in San Francisco County was down by 25 percent. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the district attorney’s office, public defender’s office and other local offices have been working to reduce the spread of the virus in correctional facilities by reducing low-risk incarcerees and providing incarcerees with proper hygiene and health supplies.
“While we knew it was nearly inevitable the virus would make its way into the jail, I am still deeply concerned to learn today that an incarcerated person in the San Francisco County Jail system tested positive for Coronavirus,” said Raju in his press release.
The city fears that this case would likely result in the spread of the virus to other incarcerees in the confined spaces and inadequate conditions of the jails in which they live, given that many incarcerees still share sinks, toilets and bunk beds, making social distancing and proper hygiene difficult.
Furthermore, this case was confirmed following a substantial reduction in the jail population in San Francisco County.
“This is the exact scenario my team has fought day in and day out to avoid by reducing the jail population,” said Raju. “That this confirmed case comes after a substantial jail population reduction demonstrates why we have not been content to rest on the tremendous work done thus far, and why we continue to fight for people to be released.”
Raju wants the courts and the sheriff to continue releasing as many incarcerees from the jails as possible to keep the jail population as low as possible to reduce the spread to other incarcerees.
For those individuals still residing in the jails, Raju asks that they are provided with personal protective equipment, adequate cleaning supplies, soap, hand sanitizer and information that will help them remain healthy.
“Those housed in our jails deserve to be safe and treated with dignity both during their incarceration and upon release,” said Raju.
In addition, Raju asks that the San Francisco Police Department continue to reduce arrests and bookings of individuals into jails for misdemeanor crimes or low-level felonies. Because of the state-wide Emergency Bail Schedule that requires zero dollar bail releases for these crimes, Raju argues that the police should stop arresting individuals for these crimes altogether since they will be released on this bail policy anyway. Instead, Raju asks that the police shift to a cite-and-release system for these offenses.
For released individuals struggling to find housing upon decarceration, Raju calls on the Human Services Agency and the Department of Public Health to immediately implement the Board of Supervisors’ ordinance that requires the city to allocate 8,250 additional private hotel rooms for people without homes. This ordinance was passed on Tuesday, Apr. 14, 2020, and required the demands of the ordinance be met by Apr. 26, 2020. There are currently 1754 rooms available at eight hotel sites. Four hundred more rooms are currently being prepared. Nine additional hotel sites are in negotiation.
The private hotel rooms would be secured through service agreements with hotels and motels. The rooms would serve as temporary quarantine facilities for the homeless, individuals released from hospitals with COVID-19 exposure or infection and front-line workers. Individuals released from jails with no place to go are also included in the ordinance.
“We need to continue taking preventative measures to prevent the spread of the virus, rather than waiting for the situation to get worse,” said Raju.
Raju wants to avoid the undesirable outcome of what happened at MSC South, San Francisco’s largest congregate homeless shelter, where 92 individuals became infected with COVID-19 due to unsafe living arrangements. Experts say that this incident was predictable and could have been averted.
“This is a do-or-die situation, requiring aggressive and urgent action across all our city departments,” said Raju in the conclusion of his press release. “We cannot afford to be reckless with the lives of anyone in our community—especially those most at risk and least able to protect themselves. We must keep going. The virus does not discriminate.”
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