Outbreak in Santa Rita Jail – 101 Active Cases in 2 Days – Weekly Highlights -Breaking Down COVID-19 in CA Jails

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(Page 2: Alameda County)

By Larkin White

Confirmed COVID-19 Cases and Outcomes 

As of July 18, there are 101 active confirmed COVID-19 cases in Santa Rita Jail (SRJ), more than double the total number of recorded cases prior to this week. The majority of the cases were confirmed on Thursday and Friday, with 40 and 55 positive tests respectively. There have been no deaths so far. 

COVID-19 in Santa Rita Jail

This week SRJ saw a serious outbreak of COVID-19 in the jail, with cases continuing to grow each day. 

According to Alameda County Sheriff Spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly, the outbreak is located in Housing Units (HU) 25 and 22, where the jail saw a spike in cases on Wednesday night and Friday respectively. HU 25 houses incarcerated people who work in the kitchen and laundry, while HU 22 is made up of mostly medium-security incarcerated people. Everyone who tested positive in the last three days is reported to be asymptomatic. The sheriff’s office even maintains that those who caught the virus have had only mild to moderate symptoms, although this is directly contradicted by testimonies from people currently and formerly incarcerated at SRJ

It is unclear when so many people caught the virus. In a testimony published in late May, Angelo Valdez, an individual formerly incarcerated in SRJ, claimed that staff had manipulated the testing procedure to keep case numbers down. If his claim is true, it is possible that some of the incarcerated people who tested positive this week have had the virus for much longer and that there are many more cases across the jail.

One possible source of exposure was the combination of both the kitchen and laundry work groups in HU 25 on July 9. Gilbert Martinez, one of the many to have tested positive, said there were 66 people living on 50 bunk beds about 3 feet apart from one another. This is a breach of guidelines laid out in the jail’s Outbreak Control Plan, which says, “inmates should be given sufficient space during meals, pod time, etc. to practice social distancing.” Martinez thought the move was incredibly dangerous at the time and said that one deputy had even begged his sergeant not to move them. He also stated that he has worked with employees from the jail’s food vendor, Aramark, who fail to wear masks, implicating them as a possible source of transmission. 

Another factor in the spread of the outbreak may be Wellpath, the jail’s medical provider. Wellpath is the largest for-profit provider of health care to correctional facilities across the country. They have also been sued for over 70 deaths in the last five years. CNN published an in-depth investigation of Wellpath last year. They found that despite claims that the company hires qualified employees, it has “repeatedly relied on inexperienced workers, offered minimal training and understaffed facilities.” 

SRJ has its own history of negligence when it comes to the well-being of people incarcerated there. The jail has seen over 40 deaths itself in the last five years, as well as two major lawsuits in recent years over inhumane and unsanitary conditions. Two years ago, a woman sued SRJ and California Forensic Medical Group, one of two providers that merged to create Wellpath a few years ago, claiming that she was forced to give birth alone in a solitary confinement cell

SRJ has now begun testing proactively because of the outbreak. Kelly stated that they would “continue to test as many as [they] can” and their daily reports have shown over 200 tests taken in the last four days. All incarcerated people are required to wear their masks any time they leave their living area, which was previously optional.

Santa Rita Jail and Alameda County

Santa Rita Jail is currently holding 1844 incarcerated people. Although the population is down 753 from March 1, it is up significantly from a low of 1726 on April 25. 

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.

In contrast to the SRJ outbreak, Alameda County as a whole has seen daily case numbers drop over the last week. 

Prison Staff Report

There are currently 10 staff and contractors with active COVID-19 infections.

After an explosion of staff cases in late June—from a total of 9 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 10 on Sunday, down to 7 in the middle of the week and back up to 10 as of Friday.

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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