Alameda Public Health Dept. Made One Visit to Santa Rita Jail Since April Despite Multiple COVID-19 Outbreaks and Harrowing Jail Conditions

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By Linh Nguyen

 

Overview

For the last 2 months, Alameda County Sheriff’s Office has been holding weekly public conference calls to provide an interface for community members to raise concerns regarding COVID-19 in Santa Rita Jail. ASCO announced that they will transition from weekly to monthly calls due to “improving” trends in COVID-19 management at SRJ.

“The Sheriff and Wellpath are following policies such as mask-wearing and other strategies that are working,” they said. “The Sheriff has introduced new tools such as tablets that promote improved communication between the inmates and their loved ones. In light of the current trends in [the virus’ spread in the jail], thank goodness, and the continuing policies designed to keep the current population from escalating, we will be reducing the frequency of these meetings.”

Jail News

An investigation into Santa Rita Jail’s most recent COVID-19 outbreak (Sept. 22 – Sept. 28), revealed that it emerged from an individual being transferred between housing units while awaiting their COVID-19 test result.

Previous testimonials to the Davis Vanguard detailed the Sheriff’s negligence regarding transfers of individuals who were COVID-19 positive or pending test results. 

The Vanguard questioned Alameda County Public Health Department (AC-PHD) on how they conduct investigations into the root-cause of outbreaks and identify if ACSO is compliant with COVID-19 policies and guidance issued by CDC. 

AC-PHD stated that their investigations and decisions are based on information SRJ provides them through virtual meetings. It was revealed that Public Health has made only one in-person visit to the jail since the pandemic emerged six months ago. This is despite numerous reports of SRJ’s negligence and violations of CDC guidelines for handling COVID-19.

Commander Sanchez stated that there has been no reason for Public Health to return and that the Sheriff’s Office maintains close communication with them. Sanchez also said that they are welcome to inspect the jail at any point. Public Health representatives similarly stated that they are willing to visit the jail if requested, however, SRJ has made no such requests for physical in-person visits.

Housing Report

Twelve housing units were under quarantine over the past two weeks (HU 3D, 3C, 3E, 24D, 9A, 21C, 24A, 24B, 24C, 32D, 32E and 32F). None of them continued quarantine until their scheduled release date, despite large numbers of pending tests. They were released presumably due to negative test results of the index case.

As of Oct. 14, no housing units were under quarantine, with the exception of the yellow quarantine units. 

Testing Report

348 tests have been administered over the past two weeks. This does not reflect the number of individuals tested as a single person may be tested more than once. 

Testing revealed one new case on Oct. 6, raising the cumulative number of cases to 264.  

ACSO confirmed that individuals are not tested prior to release from quarantine. Only confirmatory testing is being done to mark a positive COVID-19 case.

Testimonials to the Vanguard have revealed grave concerns with this strategy. According to one testimony, individuals who still experience symptoms after being released from quarantine, practice social distancing and “informal quarantine” to avoid infecting others in the jail.

According to SRJ’s policy, incarcerated people in “yellow” housing units (units with known contact to COVID-19) who test positive are placed into a separate housing unit. Those who initially test negative will be tested again after seven days and again after another seven days. They will be released after testing negative in those two consecutive tests. 

Those who initially test positive, are placed in a separate housing unit and are released when their symptoms resolve. According to Madeline, a Wellpath representative, individuals with COVID-19 see a doctor daily who makes quarantine release decisions. 

In short, individuals are tested for release if they initially test negative but are not tested for release if they initially test positive. 

The Vanguard questioned Commander Yesenia Sanchez and Wellpath staff on why testing was not being universally administered prior to quarantine release. ACSO stated that their protocol is based on CDC and AC-PHD’s recommendations, which suggest that the quarantine release strategy should not be based on testing, but rather on symptoms. According to the protocol, active cases are marked as resolved when symptoms resolve and at least after 10 days in quarantine. 

Jenn Diaz, a Wellpath representative, stated that they will review suggestions to offer testing to individuals prior to releasing them from quarantine with the Public Health Department.

While ASCO claims that access to medical care and medicine is extensive and accessible, testimonials from incarcerated people suggest otherwise, stating that access to medical care and medicines is limited and restrictive.

New bookings are offered testing, though the consent refusal rate is very high. This refusal potentially stems from wanting to avoid social isolation and solitary-confinement style quarantines if tested positive

There may be more active cases in the jail than what ACSO reports. These cases may be undetected because individuals are asymptomatic or confirmatory testing cannot be done due to consent refusal. 

Testing would need to be more widespread to confirm the true active cases in the jail so that they can be separated from those 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 have suggested.

Population Report

In the past two weeks, the jail population soared from 1985 people to 2105 people, a 120 person increase. Having surpassed 2100 people, it is unlikely that the population will drop below 2000 in the near future. 

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

Alameda County has adopted the zero-bail policy, which is intended to control jail populations during the pandemic. However, a stipulation in the policy states that individuals who re-offend after initially being released on zero-bail, would have to be placed on the regular bail schedule.

Commander Sanchez stated that re-offense has been a large source of SRJ’s population growth over the past few weeks. She was unable to provide exact figures on the percentage of the population being held due to this stipulation. 

Another cause for the population spike is the rising number of individuals awaiting transfer to CDCR.

Sanchez said, “As we continue to work with the courts to have trials and sentencing hearings continue, people are getting sentenced to state prison and we are continuing to hold them until the state allows for those transfers to occur.”

As of Oct. 9, there are 126 people awaiting transfer to CDCR. It was previously reported that 8 individuals pending CDCR transfers were released due to their time-served credits. 

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.

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

She added that 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. Sanchez added that the county agencies have been receptive thus far.

When pressed on community concerns regarding the rising population, Sanchez admitted to not prioritizing population control, explicitly stating, “No, we don’t have an ultimate goal to limit population.” 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.

Staff Report

There are no confirmed COVID-19 cases among jail staff. There have been 52 cases in total. 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.

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About The Author

Aparna Komarla leads the Covid In-Custody project, which partners with the Davis Vanguard to bring reporting on the pandemic's impact on county jails and CDCR to the public eye. See www.covidincustody.org for more information.

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