Confirmed COVID-19 Case in Sac Jail; Court Filing Suggests Poor Inmate Conditions, Sickness

By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

SACRAMENTO – News reports late Thursday confirmed that at least one inmate at a Sacramento County jail has had a positive COVID-19 test – but THE VANGUARD has learned there may be other coronavirus patients in the county jails, where inmates are not being given protective equipment, like masks, and are living in squalid conditions

THE VANGUARD also revealed in a jailhouse interview nearly three weeks ago that COVID-19 may have been in the jails for months.

And Thursday, a female inmate was reportedly released Wednesday after testing positive for the virus while in the main downtown jail’s 7th Floor west wing. The jail said she was asymptomatic and isolated.

However, another female inmate, also released Wednesday and who was on the same floor as the COVID-19 inmate, said that all prisoners are intermingled, according to her attorney Shari Rusk, who shared a Motion for Release she filed this week with THE VANGUARD,

The inmate’s family, as noted in a pleading filed in federal court by attorney Rusk, quotes the inmate as describing “overcrowding at the jail, with many inmates sick,” including an inmate complaining of flu symptoms who had to be removed by stretcher.”

That description matches comments from medical personnel that THE VANGUARD learned about this week that the jails are now testing for COVID-19 after an inmate was removed by guards wearing “hazmat” suits.

But Sacramento County jail officials, while admitting the first case, claim there’s not a problem.

“She was not exposed to any other inmates…in an abundance of caution, I understand they have locked down that floor — but that’s not because they believe there’s any chance of a spread,” according to a statement from the Sheriff’s office.

The two county jails – one downtown and another at Rio Cosumnes – have released about 1,200 inmates over the past two months, dropping the number incarcerated to about 2,800 from 4,000, in an effort to make room for social distancing measures.

Jails and prisons all over the U.S. are reducing their populations in a similar fashion to avoid an outbreak – COVID-19 is deadly and spreads very quickly in confined space like jails, or nursing homes.

The information made available to THE VANGUARD Thursday quoted Rusk’s client confirming that the jail “has no personal protective equipment, “no mask(s) or hand sanitizer.”

The just-released inmate said she used “socks as a mask.”

The federal filing also said the inmate described an incident last Sunday where the entire pod flooded, and inmates had to “scoop (water) off the floor in buckets, with no gloves or sanitary equipment. The next day, the inside of the pod was moist, further aggravating respiratory issues and potential mold problems.”

She also said the jail ran out of toilet paper, sanitary napkins, and bread for a time.

The Federal Defender’s Office said in a statement, “The question is not if contagion will get into jails and prisons, but when. It’s for this reason that we continue to advocate for clients who can and should be safely released to shelter in place at home. The fact that the jail is reporting its first confirmed coronavirus positive test now, after weeks of trying to avoid infection, shows that no plan is foolproof…The Sacramento County Main Jail, like the rest of this country, is under threat from this virus, and will continue to be for a long time.”

In exclusive interviews with male inmates in both county jails nearly three weeks ago, it appeared COVID-19 has been lurking in the facilities for months.

Those incarcerated in the jails here have confided to THE VANGUARD that inmates are suffering from fever, cough, and other classic symptoms of COVID-19 – and have been for months – but are not being tested for the virus, only given Tylenol, and otherwise forgotten.

Inmates, in candid conversations with THE VANGUARD, described grim conditions inside Sacramento’s two jail facilities for those why may have or have had COVID-19.

Prisoners said they’ve seen inmates who “collapse” in chow lines because of the illness – some never return.

“It’s real ugly here. I’ve seen folks collapse, falling down with fever in the chow lines. They’re just carried off, some return and some don’t,” said Frederick Garner, an inmate awaiting trial and now housed at RCCC (Rio Cosumnes Correction Center).

Garner said when people come back, they’re “still coughing all over us.”

“I came down with something. Fever, cough, it hurt to take a breath, joints hurt so bad I couldn’t walk…and they just gave me a couple of Tylenol and an allergy pill a day – I had to buy more through our commissary,” said Garner, 50, who has underlying conditions of high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat and diabetes.

“Anyone who mentions the virus to the guards is ignored. Sometimes they quarantine people, but they push them right back here after a little while,” said Garner, who is facing marijuana sales and domestic violence charges – his wife recanted and said she was the aggressor, but the court wouldn’t release him from his $625,000 bail.

Garner said inmates are keenly aware of COVID-19 but “try to stay positive. We’re very, very concerned. We talk about it, but try to keep it light.”

He did say that “eventually” inmates get to see a nurse, but even that is questionable.

“I have very high blood pressure, even with my meds. Like, if it’s 190 over something, and that’s real high, they have me raise my arm above the machine and it brings the BP back down to 140, and then they say I’m OK,” he said.

What precautions is the jail taking to prevent COVID-19 from taking hold?

“There’s fewer of us now, so we have more room. But social distancing? Ain’t no way to do it,” said Garner, describing the jail as a “petri dish.”

“We try to stay apart but when we’re transported on the bus to court, we’re handcuffed together and stuffed into a holding cell,” said the father of five, and grandfather of six.

When defendants go into court it’s noticeable – hearings are done via the streaming service Zoom now – that no prisoners have masks, although deputies and defense counsel wear masks.

“They’ve never offered us masks,” said Garner.

Even attempts to sterilize the jail cause health problems, he related.

“Every night about midnight they come in, wearing masks, and spray disinfectant, fumigate our stuff…but then we can’t breathe, we don’t have masks. We’re all complaining about raw, sore throats,” said Garner.

Garner said he has some sympathy for guards, too.

“I see them. They’re young and in good shape. But then I see them later and they have circles under their eyes and don’t look well,” he said. Some guards wear masks, and some don’t, Garner said, who wonders if guards don’t want to know if COVID-19 is in the jail because then they’d be quarantined away from their families.

Michelle Spaulding, Garner’s private defense counsel, called the jail conditions a “horror for the sick inmates, like Mr. Garner, who are trapped in there, not able to get out and get proper treatment. It’s unimaginable.

“If this is true, then it was happening at a time we were being told the jail was a safe and sanitary place to visit our clients. Perhaps they thought the precautions they were taking were sufficient, but what if they were wrong,” asked Spaulding.

“Not to let people choose whether to potentially be exposed to the virus takes away a fundamental right. How many people were exposed as a result of this? Inmates get released; guards go home. How many people did they then come into contact with,” Spaulding added.

Another prisoner, released in mid-April from the downtown mail jail, said he got sick in February, for nearly three weeks. And he wasn’t the only one, he said.
“I had a fever, high heart rate, the worst headache of my life, couldn’t smell or taste. They wouldn’t test me for the virus, but something bad was going around,” he said, adding that older incarcerated were “falling down,” and that it seemed guards were getting sick.

“We had restrictions, they brought meals to us, there was hand sanitizer in the dayroom. But the mood was really depressing. Of course, we knew about the virus,” he said, and claims that tension has led to “a lot more fights.”

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About The Author

Veteran news reporter and editor, including stints at the Sacramento Bee, Woodland Democrat, and Vietnam war correspondent and wire service bureau chief at the State Capitol.

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