Three Sacramento Public Defenders Quarantined after Exposure to COVID-19 Inmates, According to Tip to THE VANGUARD


By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief

SACRAMENTO – At least three – and maybe more – Sacramento County Assistant Public Defenders were reportedly told late Tuesday evening that they should quarantine after County Jail inmates they represented tested positive for COVID-19.

An 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.

THE VANGUARD was unable to verify the information late Tuesday night.

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.

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

The source Tuesday reported that emails were sent to the DA (District Attorney) by the Sheriff, who was requesting the release of a COVID-19 positive inmate.

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.

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 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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27 thoughts on “Three Sacramento Public Defenders Quarantined after Exposure to COVID-19 Inmates, According to Tip to THE VANGUARD”

  1. Tia Will

    in an abundance of caution,”

    This phrase seems to have become a euphemism for: We are fairly sure we have the virus and are going to belatedly start taking some measures ( often inadequate) to reduce its spread.

    If you sense my anger and frustration, you are right. Our jails and prisons, like assisted living and skilled nursing facilities are mass housing situations in which individuals are not free or not able to take full precautions. They are also settings in which, due to lack of ability to maintain social distancing and facial covering, even greater precautions should be taken and should have been in place from the onset of these recommendations to the community. So let me be clear about what these precautions should have been.

    1. For the asymptomatic population: social distancing of at least six feet and use of facial coverings when distancing is not possible.

    2. For symptomatic individuals : isolation in a single room ( cell) with its own bathroom if possible, or availability of means to disinfect prior to and after use, if not. No sharing of plates, bowls, cups, utensils. Meals delivered to door.

    3. For asymptomatic index case ( test +): quarantine in household unit for duration of protocol specific to their circumstances

    Since the population of many of our jails/prisons did not allow for these measures, the population should have been reduced to the point where they could be adhered to. To not take these basic precautions puts at risk not only the inmates, but anyone who comes in contact with them including but not limited to custody, medical workers, lawyers who then take any virus obtained out in to the community putting us all at risk.

    This is absolutely unconscionable and was largely preventable with prompt compliance with recommendations.


    1. Alan Miller

      Agree 100%, TW.

      I got an email that yoga studios will open soon, with no masks required once you are on settled in, with the blessing of the county government.  I am thankful to the studio I go to will continue to offer classes virtually, and I will be taking advantage of that.  But I am concerned for those that go in, as one can get into some pretty deep breathing in a room with what will be six foot spacing – but with heavy breathing the droplet spread is much further than six feet, especially without masks.

      I guess the theory is the rate of infection appears to be low, so the chances of anyone having it are low in a small group.  Then again, those that show up are people who probably have been out-and-about already and not too concerned about the virus.  To me, it’s sort of like playing Russian roulette with 1600 chambers instead of six.  Yolo was at 52 cases and the threshold to reopen was 55.  That’s not much leeway and we just got hit in our skilled nursing facility, which could soon be a cluster.

      I’m concerned that with so many businesses reopening over a short period of a few weeks — and the tendency for the public to believe that reopening means the virus is gone — that if a spike hits and they have to shut down again — that it may be the final blow for many small businesses – especially those that have to stock an inventory and hire workers ahead, like restaurants (all this very costly).  I hope my concerns are unfounded for Yolo!  But happenings in Texas and Florida would seem to indicate my concerns are quite, um . . . founded.

  2. Jeff Boone

    Off topic, but the report of COVID spikes in Davis and the potential re-shutting down of business.

    I hope the Supes have more sense that that, but across the state there is little evidence of government sense related to this virus.

    Part of me considers this part of the nationwide effort to kill the small business economy as a political move. Because common sense clearly does not support destroying the economy with a second fatal coup de grace.

    1. Alan Miller

      Is there a level of spike at which you would consider re-shutting to be justified?  I’m not asking for a number, but if there were a major outbreak (and with the lag-time, we don’t know if that already is happening), would you consider re-shutting justified?

  3. Don Shor

    Previously you have proposed isolating the older members of the community as a strategy for minimizing the impact of COVID-19. Clearly the data from the recent spike suggests that will not be effective. These cases are community spread, largely from family gatherings, and concentrated in the Latinx community.

    Yolo County Supervisor Don Saylor of Davis said Wednesday would be “a key day” in determining whether the county would have to pause or reverse reopenings.

    “If we exceed the threshold of 55 (cases in two weeks), we will need to reconsider the actions we took to reopen various activities,” he said in a Facebook post.

    Saylor said all of the new cases are community cases — not from senior care or other congregate living facilities — and were primarily traced to family events over Memorial Day weekend.

    If you have some different metric by which the supervisors should take action when cases spike across different age groups — as is occurring due to family gatherings — I’d be curious what it is and what action, if any, they should take. I’d be very interested to know what evidentiary basis you would use in deciding about policy. If your answer is ‘do nothing’ — well, that seems like a recipe for disaster from a health standpoint.

    These numbers are not good. Similar reports are coming in from many regions. I suggest taking them seriously and giving due consideration to the recommendations of health policy experts.

  4. Jeff Boone

    This is getting absolutely ridiculous.  It is like a new religious sect has devolved from the church of liberal secularism.  Thou shalt not ever contract a virus and infect thy neighbor!

    This is part of an opinion piece I completely agree with.  So does Cuomo and Newsom apparently.

    Asked last month about when fatalities and hospitalizations would meet state thresholds for reopening, Mr. Cuomo responded: “All the early national experts, ‘Here’s my projection model.’ . . . They were all wrong. They were all wrong. . . . There are a lot of variables. I understand that. We didn’t know what the social distancing would actually amount to. I get it, but we were all wrong.”

    “We have to recognize you can’t be in a permanent state where people are locked away—for months and months and months and months on end—to see lives and livelihoods completely destroyed, without considering the health impact of those decisions as well,” Mr. Newsom said Monday.

    Yet national Democrats and the press are still promoting worst-case predictions, almost as if they’re hoping for worse so they can prove Donald Trump wrong. The University of Washington now projects that reopening will cause deaths to triple in California and increase six-fold in Florida and Arizona through September.
    But as Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis explains in a new paper, most models have overshot in part by making faulty assumptions about virus reproduction rates and homogenous susceptibility. A Massachusetts General Hospital model predicted more than 23,000 deaths within a month of Georgia reopening but the state had only 896.

    “In the presence of strong groupthink and bandwagon effects, modelers may consciously fit their predictions to what is the dominant thinking and expectations—or they may be forced to do so,” Mr. Ioannidis writes. “Forecasts may be more likely to be published or disseminated, if they are more extreme.”

    A surge of new infections is inevitable as states reopen, and health officials will have to watch for and contain hot spots. But the Covid models aren’t destiny, and the cost of new lockdowns is too great to sustain. We have to live with the virus risks while fortifying the health system and protecting the most vulnerable.

    1. Don Shor

      A surge of new infections is inevitable as states reopen, and health officials will have to watch for and contain hot spots.

      Since you have cited this approvingly, please tell me what you think they mean by “contain.”

      1. Keith Olsen

        Since you have cited this approvingly, please tell me what you think they mean by “contain.”

        Well for starters don’t approve of mass protests/riots of tens of thousands of protesters not social distancing and in many cases not wearing masks.


        1. Don Shor

          Well for starters don’t approve of mass protests/riots of tens of thousands of protesters not social distancing and in many cases not wearing masks.

          Or Trump rallies, presumably. So is that what you think the board of supervisors should do if there is a spike in cases? Take action to prevent outdoor and family gatherings? Or do you have some other method you think would be appropriate for trying to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when cases are increasing again in the community? If you were a county supervisor, what would you do?

        2. Keith Olsen

          Politicians, health officials and even doctors and nurses who backed the protests and even encouraged them can’t now turn around and tell us all to lock down again.  They let the horse out of the barn.

          What’s so ironic about all of this is Sacramento banned all gatherings after the open the economy rally at the Capitol saying they were COVID dangerous just to turn around and allow them later when it was a cause they liked.

          And just as we’re hearing now the left wants to stop rallies now that Trump is getting ready to launch his.

          It just shows it’s all about politics and not so much about science.

          1. David Greenwald

            Not sure what this comment has to do with public defenders getting exposed to COVID

    1. Jeff Boone

      LOL.  Wow.  291.  That is such a big number.  Scary.  The funny thing is that is probably close to the same number of Yolo County small businesses that would fail and close from this extreme inability to rationalize real risk and put a viable plan in place.

      My wife was telling me that she came from the grocery store and was considering buying some peaches, but noted that the typical way to buy a peach is to touch it to see how ripe it is.  No rules about that.  And then she when to Fed-Ex where she could not find the mailing envelopes and was told that staff had to keep those behind the plexiglass and hand them out because of the virus risk.

      There are thousands of crap rules like that.  No rational sense.  Just like allowing the protestors but claiming that a Trump rally is a risk.  There seems to be a bunch of bossy people giddy with their new found power to randomly cancel and ban as much as they can while they have the power… but not those things that support their politics.  It is freaking freaky…  like they are sadistic in glee for how many people they can economically destroy over a virus that we have more than excess capacity to treat and it generally is only fatal to people 80 and older and/or with one of several known per-existing health problems.

      If you are old and/or in bad health, stay inside.  Then allow the economy to open.  Rational and sane policy.

      1. David Greenwald

        291 is below state average in terms of a rate.

        I think if we were still pulling in two or three a day, I wouldn’t be concerned. But we’ve now added like one quarter of those cases in the last few days. That’s concerning.

        1. Bill Marshall

           But we’ve now added like one quarter of those cases in the last few days. That’s concerning.

          Yes, and most of those are due to one or two recent events… not ‘opening up the economy’… those who minimize Covid, particularly given that if it is actually contracted/diagnosed it has very bad outcomes, are fools… those on the other end of the spectrum, same… pancreatic cancer is not often diagnosed early… 5 year survival rate is < 10%… fact… cases of PC in 2019 > 200,000… it’s causes are largely unknown, like the characterization of Covid-19…

          It’s called life (and illness/death)…

          We need to up the testing, remain prudent (not paranoid), and realize that not only taxes, but there is another reality that no human living can escape from… but, Betty White may prove me wrong… but, pretty sure she pays taxes…

          1. David Greenwald

            From the Enterprise: “The spike in cases, particularly in the last week, has been due to several factors, the county said, including family gatherings with a lack of social distancing as well as individuals traveling out of the county and bringing the virus back to Yolo County.”

            I’m a bit reluctant to simply blame it on one or two recent events, because if there wasn’t COVID to begin with and people were more careful this wouldn’t occur.

          2. David Greenwald

            Not only did Yolo have record positive cases,but CA did as well. 3,455 positive cases.

      2. Don Shor

        LOL. Wow. 291. That is such a big number. Scary.

        The number that matters is the 25 reported today.

        Just like allowing the protestors but claiming that a Trump rally is a risk.

        Both are a risk.

        There seems to be a bunch of bossy people giddy with their new found power to randomly cancel and ban as much as they can while they have the power… but not those things that support their politics. It is freaking freaky… like they are sadistic in glee for how many people they can economically destroy

        I don’t actually know anyone who meets this description. Certainly not the county health officer or the county supervisors.

        Restricting outdoor activities seems prudent right now. Significant outreach to communities that may not be practicing social distancing and wearing masks. It would really, really help if the president and leading conservatives would wear face coverings in public and comment, often and in several languages, about the importance of doing that.
        Minimizing the severity of this virus and its propensity to spread is very ill-advised. Demonizing the health professionals who are pressing for greater public safety has reached the point that they are getting threatened for doing their jobs. We need to take this disease seriously. It may be necessary to step back on the reopening for some activities. School, sports activities, outdoor events may have to continue to be cancelled. I suggest that a cavalier attitude about this disease will make things much, much worse.

        1. Keith Olsen

           I suggest that a cavalier attitude about this disease will make things much, much worse.

          I suggest that the cavalier attitude many of our politicians and health officials who not only allowed but supported the BLM protests will make things much, much worse.

          If they try to shut things down again after that they’re going to get a huge backlash and they have no one to blame but themselves.

          1. David Greenwald

            I’m not sure how you arrive at the idea that health officials “allowed but supported the BLM protests” most said it was a bad idea. Fauci said any large group is “a danger” and “risky.”

            Fauci said “he understands the urge people have to participate in the political process. But he also said the safest bet is to avoid congregating in large groups.”

            “You know, it’s a danger to the people who are trying to control the demonstration,” he said of the recent political protests. “And it’s a danger to the people who are demonstrating. So at the end of the day, it is a risky procedure.”

            So I’m not sure where you are getting the idea that health officials supported the protests.

            It seems more likely that they will put in stricter guidelines on social distancing and masks – this is the part where I think the right is dumb. They don’t want shutdowns but they refuse to wear masks. How dumb is that? If everyone simply wore masks we wouldn’t be having this problem.

        2. Keith Olsen

          I can post several articles just like this:

          A group of nearly 1,300 health professionals from across the country — including a handful from Colorado — recently signed an open letter that praised the protesters of the last couple of weeks for calling attention “to the pervasive lethal force of white supremacy.” The protests began as a response to the death of Floyd, a black man, after a white police officer pressed his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and have grown to include the deaths of other black people at police hands around the country.
          “… We do not condemn these gatherings as risky for COVID-19 transmission,” the letter states. “We support them as vital to the national public health and to the threatened health specifically of Black people in the United States.”
          The letter said the same considerations should not be given to “protests against stay-home orders,” which it claimed “not only oppose public health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for Black lives.”


  5. Keith Olsen

    I think the right is dumb. They don’t want shutdowns but they refuse to wear masks. How dumb is that?

    I wear a mask, every conservative I know where masks when they go out.

    I’m sure there are some, but the same can be said for many liberals too, you paint with too broad of a brush.

    1. Bill Marshall

      you paint with too broad of a brush.

      True story… another pandemic that does not discriminate along ethnic, political, etc. lines… or, perhaps endemic, with a pandemic “wave”…

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