Warned of COVID-19 Jail Threat, Sacramento Sheriff Rails Against Precautions Even As Inmates Get Sick

By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

SACRAMENTO – Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones can’t say he wasn’t warned that he should take profound steps to stop COVID-19 from raging through the county’s jail, as it has torn through New York City, the U.S., and the world.

The sheriff has issued statements that the COVID-19 pandemic is over and life should get back to normal, even as least one inmate has been diagnosed with the virus in one Sacramento jail, and first-hand accounts strongly suggest inmates are getting very sick from something in the jails downtown and south of the city.

Just about one day before a county jail inmate tested positive with the virus, Jones strongly criticized the Judicial Council’s emergency orders that mandated most misdemeanor and some felony inmates be released from local jails in an effort to allow social distancing.

Jones, on his Facebook page, said: “It is time to reflect on decisions we have made under the pretext of this pandemic: Such as why we were forced to let over 1,100 inmates out of Sacramento’s COVID-free jail into a community where the law-abiding are still locked down?”

Meanwhile, national experts have predicted jails and prison are the nation’s new nursing homes, where thousands of older Americans died when COVID-19 raced through the facilities like wildfire.

In March, Aaron J. Fischer from Disability Rights California, and Margot Mendelson of the Prison Law Office – principal lawyers in the Mays class action suit against the county jail last year – sent two letters to Jones about the risk of the COVID-19.

The Sheriff reportedly has not responded to either letter.

“The fast-changing circumstances regarding the COVID-19 pandemic have signaled increasing urgency for aggressive action. We as Mays class counsel anticipate a prompt and detailed response to our March 18 letter regarding the pandemic’s extraordinary risks to the health and safety of Mays class members,” they wrote.

The class action lawyers added, “In the interim, we call upon the Sheriff’s Department and the County to act immediately to prevent transmission of the virus through the jail facilities – and the enormous costs to health and human life that would follow.”

They cited a state law that allows the Sheriff to “mitigate the tremendous risks” faced by people in the Sacramento County Jails.

The law reads, in part: “In any case in which an emergency endangering the lives of inmates of a state, county, or city penal or correctional institution has occurred or is imminent, the person in charge of the institution may remove the inmates from the institution. He shall, if possible, remove them to a safe and convenient place and there confine them as long as may be necessary to avoid the danger, or, if that is not possible, may release them. Such person shall not be held liable, civilly or criminally, for acts performed pursuant to this section.”

The Mays lawsuit lawyers explained to Jones that under this law, the Sheriff “shall, if possible, ensure that people held in jail custody be provided a safe place as necessary to avoid the danger. Sacramento County Jail’s crowded living conditions, severely outdated and inadequate facilities, and poor sanitation make provision of a ‘safe’ place inside the jail extremely difficult, if not impossible. Providing appropriate social distancing and hygiene would require an immediate injection of immense resources that are already scarce.”

In fact, in The VANGUARD’s 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 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 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, with one saying: “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. When they do come back they’re still coughing all over us.”

Finally, the Mays class action lawyers urged the Sheriff to “prioritize release of people with disabilities, medical conditions, or other risk factors that make them vulnerable to this pandemic, consistent with public safety on a case-by-case basis,” and they attached the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s recent notice of its Inmate Depopulation Plan to Address Coronavirus.”

But Sacramento County jail officials, while admitting the first case, claim there’s not a problem, even when it was confirmed last Thursday 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.

A female inmate has also revealed – she was on the same floor as the COVID-19 inmate – 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.

“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.

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.”

“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 inmate Fred 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.

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,” adding “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. The female inmate interviewed said she used “socks” as a mask.

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.

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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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