Guest Commentary: Recipe for Disaster – ‘Unmasking’ Yuba County Jail’s Response to COVID-19

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By Rhonda Ríos Kravitz and Kalin Kipling-Mojaddedi

As communities worldwide fight to contain a pandemic that has brought entire nations to a standstill, many detention facilities’ responses remain woefully inadequate.

Yuba County Jail in Marysville, a mere 40 minutes away from California’s capital, is one glaring example.

The jail has been under a more than 41-year consent decree to improve conditions, and as of April 27, detains 260 people.

On April 8, Yuba County Jail Captain Allan Garza sought the help of community organizations and individuals to make 1,000 hand-made masks for those in custody in the jail.

The request was made 20 days after California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order to halt the spread of COVID-19 and even as the county has a $6.5 million contract with ICE.

The community responded, sending approximately 1,000 masks to the jail. However, according to some individuals who received the request, the jail provided zero guidance on how to make masks that meet quality control standards.

The jail did not begin dispensing the masks until April 20, according to reports from those detained there, when one mask was handed out to each person in custody. They were to keep the mask for one week and then return them to the officers for laundering, at which time they were given another mask.

Critically, if a mask is going to be reused, it must be kept clean and should not be worn by another user. People in custody said they were told not to individually launder them.

This advice was unnerving as the laundry facilities at the jail are known to be substandard.

As one person held by ICE at Yuba County jail reported to Freedom For Immigrants, “Laundry service here is the worst from anywhere I have been. … We only get two sets of clothes, the same clothes we sleep in, exercise in, go to visit, and live in. We are lucky if we get clothes changed out two times a week. When they do the exchange, they come at odd hours, 3 a.m., midnight, or 5 a.m., knowing people are sleeping.”

Amid reports such as these, it’s extremely difficult to believe that the masks will be kept clean enough to protect individuals from COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.

The practices on display at this jail are disconcerting and dangerous on many levels.

First, although the masks were made by well-meaning individuals, the quality was not consistent and would not have met the standards of federal agencies such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Cloth masks are meant to help prevent a person with the virus from spreading it, not so much to prevent an individual from contracting COVID-19, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Although the officers who go in and out of the facility are required to wear masks, those detained at the jail report that officers often wear them only around their necks. These officers can potentially bring the virus into the jail and spread it among people with little to no protection.

The Mayo Clinic says that, “wearing a cloth face mask will lose any value unless it’s combined with frequent hand-washing and social distancing.”

It is nearly impossible to maintain social distancing behind bars at Yuba County Jail without releasing more people, and hygiene practices are questionable at best with reports of a lack of soap and overall dirty conditions.

Beyond the issues with masks, the apparent lack of oversight by Yuba County leaders over the jail was laid bare by one supervisor’s response to a question by community organization Estamos Unidos: “How many (COVID-19) tests have been administered inside Yuba County Jail, Supervisor?”

Yuba County Supervisor Gary Bradford responded, “I have no idea about who has been tested and where they are located.”

So, a county leader is in the dark about the jail’s response to a deadly pandemic even though the board is charged with “(exercising) executive authority for the provision of local government services to county residents … including jail facilities?”

These conditions are lethal and perfectly designed to promote the spread of this virus throughout the jail and beyond its walls – not to prevent it.

The jail must take immediate decisive action to protect the health and safety of the staff, officers, prison population and surrounding community. The health officer of Yuba County as well as the Yuba County Board of Supervisors cannot continue to turn a blind eye to this situation during an unprecedented pandemic crisis.

With hundreds of lives at risk, Yuba County Jail must release the most vulnerable now as well as all of those in ICE custody.

Rhonda Ríos Kravitz is the Dean Emerita at Los Rios Community College, the co-founder of Step Up! Sacramento and the Campaign for Immigrant Detention Reform (CIDR)/Sacramento Immigration Coalition, and the CEO of Alianza. She can be reached at rhondarioskravitz@gmail.com. Kalin Kipling-Mojaddedi is the communications manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Sacramento Valley/Central California, and a co-founder of CIDR. She can be reached at kkipling@cair.com.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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