‘Our Office Could be Decimated’ – 3 County Public Defenders Exposed to COVID-19 Positive Inmates; Other Court Staff Threatened

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By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

SACRAMENTO – As first reported in THE VANGUARD early Wednesday, and confirmed late Wednesday, COVID-19 appears to be spreading insidiously in Sacramento County’s jail – at least four cases reported this week among inmates, and three public defenders are being monitored because of their close contact to the positive-tested incarcerated.

But so far, not a word from the Sheriff’s Office or even the Public Defender’s office, either to deny or confirm the toxicity of the virus.

“Our office could be decimated,” said one county public defender after they learned that the exposed PDs had been in contact with others in the office. Now, reportedly, a COVID-19 contact tracer is trying to find out who has been potentially infected in the PD office, said the source.

A different anonymous source told THE VANGUARD that the public defenders were notified of “possible exposure” from their contact in court handling routine arraignments and other pretrial cases Tuesday.

THE VANGUARD has now confirmed the cases, and exposure from multiple sources.

“The jail is not safe,” said one attorney, who is among a large group of defense counsel who visit the jail to speak with clients.

And a leaked email from the jail confirmed four inmates – three appeared in court Tuesday – tested positive Monday and Tuesday.

Public defenders, who all appear to wear masks in court, usually get within 2-3 feet of in-custody inmates so they can privately discuss the cases. Inmates virtually never wear face masks.

Superior Court judges and Deputy District Attorneys appear remotely and safely by Zoom at pretrial hearings. Defense counsel need to appear in person to appear for them in court.

Another public defender was rumored to be exposed and was quarantined about six weeks ago but it was never confirmed.

The revelation isn’t the jail’s first brush with the coronavirus.

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones has been advised 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.

But Jones won’t embrace the threat, much like his personal hero, Pres. Donald Trump. He has issued statements that the COVID-19 pandemic is over and life should get back to normal, even as least one inmate was diagnosed a month ago 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 over the past two months, 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.
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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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