Santa Rita Jail Admits Population Control Is Not a Priority Despite Three COVID-19 Outbreaks and Numerous Complaints

By Linh Nguyen & Aparna Komarla


One week after the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office reported zero cases of COVID-19 at Santa Rita Jail, an outbreak with 17 active cases emerged. This led to serial testing and multiple housing unit quarantines.

Population Report

While SRJ’s population has been decreasing this week since last week’s record high count of 1991 people, it has been on an upward trajectory over the past five months. 

In April, ASCO pushed to release individuals and reduce intake to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. They brought the population down from 2600 to nearly 1700.

The current population spikes are despite the continued threat of the virus, evident in recent outbreaks.

The Vanguard questioned ACSO on actions they are taking to limit population growth by releasing individuals early and reducing intake.

Commander Sanchez stated that the jail has no authority to release individuals early, however, the District Attorney’s Office does periodic reviews to evaluate who can be released. She added that they prioritize the jail’s medically vulnerable population (pregnant/older than 65/having chronic medical conditions) for early releases. 

She was not aware of the specific tools or methods utilized by the DA’s office to make said evaluations. 

According to Sanchez, SRJ has requested county agencies and law enforcement agencies, who bring detainees into the jail, to cite an arrestee in the field instead of bringing them into custody if possible. She added that the county agencies have been receptive thus far. 

When pressed on community concerns regarding the rising population, Sanchez admitted to not having an ultimate goal of limiting population growth. She argued that SRJ holds very serious crime offenders, and turning away folks who were arrested and brought into their custody would violate their obligations to ensure public safety. 

She added that there are three housing units not in use, which can be accommodate a rising population while allowing social distancing. 

Sanchez also stated that the population has increased since they are holding 99 individuals awaiting transfer to CDCR. Originally, this number was 107–  8 of them were released based on their time-served credits. SRJ reportedly continues to work with CDCR to apply these credits to eligible individuals.

Housing Report

Housing Units 3D, 3C, 4F, 7, 21, 7F, 21E and 3E were under quarantine this week. 

HU 3D and 3C went under quarantine last week and were scheduled for release on Sep. 28 and Oct. 2, respectively. On Sep. 22, ASCO announced that the release date for the two housing units “will be determined by serial testing.”

ASCO stated that there were three positive patients in HU 3D. HU 3D and 3C had to be quarantined because one patient from 3D had been moved to 3C prior to knowing they had symptomatic patients.

HU 4F began quarantine on Sep. 19 and was released on Sep. 23. 

On Sep. 24, HU 7 and 21 began quarantine and was scheduled for release on Oct. 9. Both housing units went under quarantine due to “patients presenting symptoms.” A pod from HU 7 was last quarantined on July 22 and a pod from HU 21 was last quarantined on July 17. 

ASCO specified that HU 7F and 21E were under quarantine, though on Sep. 26, they again announced that HU 7 was under quarantine. 

HU 3E, along with HU 3F and 8B, has been designated as a permanent housing unit for people with a known exposure to COVID-19 and will be released on an individual basis.

Testing Report

263 tests were completed this week with 21 pending results. In total, 3979 tests have been completed since March. This count does not reflect the number of individuals tested, as one person can be tested multiple times. 

ACSO rejected a request to provide the percentage of the population tested, since the population is in flux and such a value would be challenging to determine.

Testing revealed ten new cases on Sep. 21, raising the number of active cases from four to 14. Three new cases were confirmed on Sep. 22, further raising the number of active cases to 17. 

Wellpath representative Jenn Diaz stated that tests are RT-PCR based and returned within 24-48 hours. Furthermore, only confirmatory testing is being done. Individuals are not tested prior to being released from quarantine.

There may be more active cases in the jail than what ACSO reports. These cases may be undetected because: (a). Individuals are asymptomatic or (b). Individuals refuse testing to avoid isolation and quarantine if tested positive. 

Testing would need to be more widespread to confirm the true number of infected individuals in the jail so that they can be separated from those who are more susceptible to the virus. Furthermore, to encourage testing, quarantine protocols must also change so that individuals do not fear isolation in quarantine, as incarcerated narratives shared.

The Vanguard asked ACSO if they believe current testing rates are sufficient, to which Commander Sanchez replied that they firmly believe testing is adequate and do not plan to make any alterations to their testing protocol. 

Staff Report

There is currently one confirmed COVID-19 case among jail staff. Staff members who test positive may not return to work until they are cleared per CDC guidelines.

Testing among the staff is voluntary and staff members also have the opportunity to self-quarantine if they are showing symptoms of illness or suspect they have come in contact with the virus.

About The Author

The Covid In-Custody Project partners with the Davis Vanguard to report on the pandemic's impact on California's county jails and state prisons. See for more information.

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