Testimony Suggests Santa Rita Jail Staff Manipulate Testing, Jail Staff Allowed to Return While Asymptomatic – Weekly Highlights – Breaking Down COVID-19 in CA Jails

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By Larkin White

Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes 

As of July 11, there are two active confirmed COVID-19 cases in Santa Rita Jail (SRJ), the only jail in Alameda County. There have been a total of 69 cases so far, but no deaths. 

COVID-19 in Santa Rita Jail

After a week of relatively stable numbers in the beginning of July, this week saw a four-person increase in incarcerated people confirmed to be COVID-19 positive, two of whom were released.

Although only two incarcerated people are confirmed to have COVID-19 at the moment, the accounts of people currently or formerly incarcerated in Santa Rita Jail cast doubt on the accuracy of this number. 

Several claim that some incarcerated people who experience symptoms choose not to take a test so they can avoid the subsequent isolation.

Yet, the blame is primarily placed on the direction of Sheriff Greg Ahern and the actions of jail staff. The jail population has been separated into four pools for medical reasons, but the pools obscure how many people may be sick and several people currently or formerly incarcerated at SRJ claim that the staff manipulate testing.

For example, in addition to the two confirmed active cases, there are 25 incarcerated people who have symptoms and are awaiting test results. On July 6, there were only 14 individuals awaiting results while being symptomatic. There are also over 20 housing unit pods under quarantine with incarcerated people who have had exposure to someone who has tested positive, a significant increase since last week. 

In testimony published on May 22, Angelo Valdez, an individual formerly incarcerated in Santa Rita Jail, claimed that staff had manipulated the testing procedure to keep case numbers down. According to Valdez, after he tested positive for COVID-19 they waited until he had completed his 14-day quarantine, then quarantined and tested the pod he had been living in. That way, any other people in the pod who may have had COVID-19 would not test positive.

There is evidence to suggest that jail conditions are no longer as extreme as some of the testimonies suggest. A health inspection tour taken by the Public Health Department on June 8 and filed on the 25th stated that they were “satisfied that ACSO and Wellpath have adopted and implemented appropriate policies and procedures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.” And the number of “orange” patients, separated from the general population due to increased risk of complications with COVID-19 has been steadily increasing—it is now at 162.

At the same time, the history of the jail suggests that recent inmate testimony is true. Santa Rita Jail has seen over 40 deaths in the last five years under Ahern and two major lawsuits in recent years over inhumane and unsanitary conditions. In fact, just two weeks ago body camera footage was released undercutting deputies’ claims about 20-year-old Christian Madrigal, a man who hung himself at Santa Rita Jail last spring while incarcerated there.

Santa Rita Jail and Alameda County

Santa Rita Jail is currently holding 1835 incarcerated people. Although the population is down 762 from March 1, it is up significantly from a low of 1726 on April 25 and has been climbing for the past week. 

Additionally, Byron Aldredge, an individual incarcerated in Santa Rita Jail until recently, claims that the jail has been regularly releasing inmates, meaning that actual intake is likely higher than the slow recorded increase in population.

While the initial explosion of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Santa Rita Jail was extremely out of proportion with the case numbers across Alameda County, the slow increase of the last few days is more consistent with the rise in daily case numbers over the last month.

Prison Staff Report

After an explosion of staff cases in late June—from a total of six confirmed cases on Tuesday, June 16, to 35 the following Monday—the number of active cases has steadily fallen. This last week it has gone from 24 on Monday to 10 as of yesterday.

However, similar to the small rise in confirmed cases of incarcerated people, confirmed staff cases began to rise last Thursday after a week of zero cases. Two new cases were confirmed on July 2, and one more yesterday. 

Although staff are typically ordered to stay home if they have been exposed to the virus, the jail’s official policy states that if they are understaffed, asymptomatic staff are allowed to return to work. This poses a serious risk considering that well over half of the people who catch COVID-19 have only mild symptoms or are asymptomatic. 

 

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