Sacramento County Jails Stipulate to Requiring Masks for Guards, Inmates

By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

SACRAMENTO – Sacramento County Sheriff’s Dept. deputies – THE VANGUARD has learned – are now being required to wear face coverings in county jails, and the jails are required to provide masks to inmates under an agreement filed Wednesday between the County of Sacramento and “Mays v. County of Sacramento” lawyers from Disability Rights California and the Prison Law Office.

The filings were made Wednesday, but it appears the agreement between the parties was signed June 18.

The “Mays v. County of Sacramento” class action was stipulated to in June of 2019 and signed by the court in January of this year. It was a result of a class action filed by Disability Rights California and Prison Law Office, charging the county jails were not providing humane and adequate mental and medical care to inmates.

Those same lawyers negotiated the stipulation now that allows deputies and inmates to wear masks.

The news that the jail is requiring masking comes amid reports from the jail – some in interviews by THE VANGUARD of inmates – which made it clear that Deputies usually did not wear masks in interactions with inmates and risked infecting them, and being infected themselves.

At least four inmates tested positive last week for COVID-19 in the jails, and an unknown number of other inmates are infected. And three Public Defenders from the county were told they were exposed to COVID-19 positive prisoners just last week.

The Jail, County and Public Defenders Office have not responded to requests to comment, but public defenders and private defense counsel confirmed the virus exposure to lawyers and inmates.

The stipulation made available to THE VANGUARD requires all deputies carry face coverings at all times, to wear them when in elevators, day rooms, dorm housing units, transport vehicles, health care treatment areas and classrooms, as well as the intake area.

Further, the stipulation says that “Jail staff will….offer face coverings to all” inmates in the intake area and in all housing units, and “will provide face coverings upon request” by any inmate.

Also, as part of the stipulation, the jail is required to allow inmates more access to phones and showers – the facilities had been denying showers and phone calls for up to a week or more to inmates entering seven and 14-day quarantine periods.

The stipulation notes that “the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has posed significant challenges to protect the health and well-being of incarcerated persons in criminal detention facilities like the Sacramento County Jail’s Main Jail and Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center (RCCC).

In a letter to Rick Heyer, Supervising County Counsel, in late May, Margot Mendelson and Aaron J. Fischer of Prison Law Office and Disability Rights California, respectively, noted “serious concerns about the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic…two serious deficiencies have emerged:

“(1) the Department’s failure to require custody staff to wear face coverings when interacting with incarcerated people, and (2) the extreme and harsh conditions of confinement for people during the mandatory seven-day intake observation period for new arrivals and the fourteen-day quarantine for people who live in celled housing and have symptoms or possible exposure to COVID-19.

“We previously have expressed our concerns about these harmful practices, including that they are out of step with other California county jail systems,” they wrote, adding that since the “Sheriff’s Department has not acted to resolve these problems” the lawyers were exercising their right via the Consent Decree to enter into resolution over the inaction of the jails.

“The magnitude of the present public health crisis cannot be overstated. As of May 26, 2020, there have been over five million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, and more than 340,000 people have died. There is no vaccine, and there is no proven treatment,” the lawyers stressed, in talking about the dire situation in the county jails.

“People incarcerated in the Sacramento County Jails face a substantially higher risk of serious health consequences from COVID-19 than the general population. Many people in the jails are older or in poor health, and thus are at greater risk of severe illness or death if they contract COVID-19. Hundreds of people in Sacramento County Jail custody have conditions that render them vulnerable to COVID-19, including asthma, heart conditions, lung disease, severe obesity, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, and diabetes,” the letter continued.

“Moreover, infectious diseases like COVID-19 spread more rapidly in congregate settings, where people share sleeping areas, dining facilities, and bathrooms. In the Sacramento County Jails, many people live in crowded dorms where they are unable to achieve social distancing.

“People with high-risk medical conditions and people in high-risk age categories live in these dorms, where they share common surfaces and routinely come within six feet of other people. Nationwide, prisons and jails have been an epicenter of viral transmission,” they wrote, noting that of the nation’s top 25 clusters of virus, all but three were in jails, prisons, nursing homes and veterans homes.

The lawyers took issue with the jails’ decision to not require masks of custodial deputies, calling it “indefensible and stands in stark contrast to public health recommendations and standard practices in California county jails and prisons.

“The CDC expressly endorses the use of face coverings in correctional settings. The CDC has recognized that ‘because staff members move between correctional facilities and their communities daily,’ they may constitute ‘an important source of virus introduction into facilities.’”

The letter added that “the Sheriff’s Department’s refusal to require custody staff to wear masks conflicts with the County’s own correctional health department policy. A directive by Sacramento County’s Adult Correctional Health Department observes that ‘[a]n employee may harbor COVID-19 but have no symptoms.’

“In other words, while correctional health staff in the jail must wear face coverings, custody staff who interact directly with incarcerated people are subject to no such requirement. We are aware of no reasoned basis for this position.”

The attorneys’ letter also said the Sheriff’s Department’s failure to require custody officers to wear masks “diverges sharply from the practices of other California county jails and the California state prisons.”

Alameda County, Yuba County, Riverside County, Fresno County, Contra Costa County, Santa Clara County, Santa Barbara County, and San Bernardino all require custody staff to wear masks.

Finally, the “Mays v. County of Sacramento” lawyers criticized the Sheriff’s Dept. practice of denying showers and most phone calls for inmates entering the jail when they are placed into a seven-day observation period.

“Their only means to clean their bodies is to use the sink in their cells. Showers are critical for hygiene and mental health, especially in the often tumultuous period following arrest and booking in the jail. Showering also promotes good sanitation practices, which are essential to preventing the transmission of COVID-19,” they argued, noting that Title 15 requires jails to provide showers at least every other day.

“The blanket denial of showers to people in the intake observation period and or in quarantine is inhumane, unjustified, and counterproductive to the important objectives of maintaining hygiene and sanitation in the jails…(the jails) should modify its complete ban on access to phones for calls to loved ones, in a manner that appropriately balances public health needs and the rights of Mays class members to humane conditions of confinement,” they wrote.

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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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