“My first quarantine cell was covered in feces, vomit and blood. Deputies did not care” – Narratives from Santa Rita Jail Detail Horrifying Conditions During Pandemic

By Linh Nguyen

ALAMEDA COUNTY — On Sep. 8, John (name changed for anonymity) started feeling unwell. Four days later, on Sep. 12, his symptoms worsened and he reported his condition to a nurse. He was sent into quarantine after speaking with medical staff who suspected that he could be COVID-19 positive. 

He was tested for COVID-19 on Sep. 15, a week after his symptoms began. On Sep. 17, he received a positive test result.

John shared his story with the Davis Vanguard in a phone interview. 

On several occasions, he complained to nurses about his flu-like symptoms worsening. He experienced wheezing, severe cough, body-aches, shallow breathing and high fever. 

He stated, “I spoke to the nurses about my condition since I wanted medical care to feel better. I also wanted to make sure that I did not put others at risk.” His efforts mounted to little effect. 

One nurse responded with “Drink a lot of water.” The only medication he received were cough drops and Mucinex. He did not receive any medication for pain relief, body-aches or fever despite multiple requests for it. In several instances, he had to purchase medicines from the commissary. 

His first quarantine cell was covered in feces, vomit and blood that he had to clean. He added, “It was horrible and disgusting. I complained to the deputies but they did not care.” He was only given basic cleaning sprays and tissues to sanitize the cell. 

John was transferred three times to different quarantine cells during his fourteen-day quarantine period. It is unclear if individuals who were exposed to him and others during their transfers were tested. He felt that the transfer process was “reckless and dangerous as it put several people at risk.”

Individuals in the quarantine unit were allowed to go outside for an hour every two days, which included shower time. John stated, “You don’t even get a chance to clean yourself and get the virus out of your body. Because of the fever, you are covered in sweat, and feel uncomfortable without cleaning yourself for days at a time.”

During quarantine, he had access to a tablet to read news, watch movies and make phone calls, however, he could not access FaceTime or any video calling service, though the Sheriff’s Office stated that video access was enabled. 

While tablet use is permitted between 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., its battery life is poor and must be periodically returned to COs for charging. They can take several hours to charge and may not be returned within the same day. 

As a result, John was unable to see his family for fourteen days. He recalled how difficult it was to not see his newborn son for two weeks, while being in fear about his own wellbeing. 

He said that the jail was doing a poor job of informing families that their family member has tested positive and is in quarantine. Many families were unaware that their loved one was suffering. 

During his quarantine, he was never seen by a doctor, although Commander Yesenia Sanchez stated that doctors see individuals in quarantine twice a day. He added, “There is a button on the cell wall that someone can use to reach a nurse in case they feel very sick. Sometimes the nurses did not respond to my calls even after multiple tries.”

On some days, John felt his symptoms becoming debilitating. He stated, “I wanted some proper medical treatment, a lung X-ray or something serious. Even being hospitalized would have helped.” Despite his repeated requests, no one advised advanced or thorough medical care at a hospital.

John was released from quarantine after fourteen days. He was not tested prior to his release

Commander Sanchez and representatives from Wellpath, Santa Rita Jail’s healthcare provider, explicitly stated that they do not test positive individuals prior to release from quarantine. Rather, they release individuals from quarantine based on a symptoms check. This is reportedly based on guidance from CDC and Alameda Public Health Department. 

Vanguard has requested proof of this guidance, stating that jails are not advised to test before a case is declared as resolved. 

John felt it was reckless to release him and others from quarantine without proper testing to confirm they are no longer contagious. 

Since his release, he still has a persistent cough and does not feel fully recovered. He has been trying to socially distance to avoid as much contact as possible. 

John’s experience is one of many harrowing stories from Santa Rita Jail. In August, the Davis Vanguard featured four testimonials highlighting the jail’s poor sanitation, rejected requests for testing and absence of medical care.

Richard (name changed for anonymity), had his experience published to Santa Rita Jail Solidarity in August. 

In May or June, there was an outbreak in Housing Unit 32, where Richard was residing. 60 percent of the unit was sick with COVID-19 and in quarantine. At least two or three people were sick in every pod. 

Richard said that when people tested positive, they were quarantined for fourteen days but were not given any medication or medical treatment. 

He said that pod workers like himself were put in “harm’s way” during the outbreak. 

“We had to feed everyone and clean the whole building, and I don’t remember any sanitation measures being taken to protect us,” he wrote. 

In late July, he was moved to HU 7. He had not had a temperature check since June and the jail was reportedly not checking temperatures or testing anyone in HU 7. 

The conditions in HU 7 were worse than in HU 32. 

“We used to get soap every week in HU 32, but since I came to 7, I haven’t gotten soap in weeks,” Richard wrote. “We don’t get proper cleaning supplies here either. We used to get disinfectant wipes every other week in HU 32, but here we don’t get any. We only get a broom, a scrub brush, and a spray bottle to clean.”

He added that social distancing was impossible in HU 7 and correctional officers did not enforce it. Some officers did not even wear masks or gloves. 

“I’ve been spending more time than usual in my cell,” Richard said. “I’ve been going through a lot emotionally, but I only get to see my mental health staff maybe once every other month. I try to feel better by exercising and reading, but being stuck here, it feels like you have nowhere to go.”

Kevin (name changed for anonymity), also shared his story with Santa Rita Jail Solidarity. 

He wrote that medical negligence was rampant at the jail. Doctors were denying medical treatment for a lot of people with asthma, blood clot problems and diabetes.

“People are scared to go to medical staff about it, because people are often brushed off, or if they’re positive they’re placed in ad-seg and treated like they committed some kind of offense,” he wrote.

He added that the number of positive cases was higher than 103– the confirmed cases count reported by the Sheriff’s Office in mid July. 

“The health department and CDC need to do a walk around instead of just calling the jail and getting false information,” Kevin wrote. “We need to have the health department and CDC do a surprise investigation and inspection, otherwise they’ll make it look like we’re living in Beverly Hills.”

Furthermore, the housing units are unsanitary and unlivable. “There are mice running around at night,” Kevin wrote. “We’re being given brooms without a broomstick, so people clean the floor on their knees. There are pieces of food, objects, and old, dried up blood stuck in the carpet, which has bacteria that irritates people’s skin.”

The showers were also unsanitary because people were forced to urinate in them, since toilets in the pod area were not working. This has caused skin irritation problems. 

Further, the jail captain claimed that the spaces will be properly sanitized, but they were not. 

Kevin added that people working in the kitchen got infected, but the jail still allowed food to be distributed to every unit. Incarcerated people were not consuming the food because they feared it was contaminated with the virus. 

He also affirmed Richard’s statement that some correctional officers do not wear face masks. In Kevin’s recollection, he said that he has seen at least four deputies not wearing face masks, putting incarcerated people in harm’s way.

In his closing statement, Kevin said that Santa Rita Jail and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department are capitalizing on their incarceration. 

“They refuse to let people be at home and instead trap them at Santa Rita Jail, and the Alameda County Public Defender’s office has been misrepresenting their clients,” Kevin wrote. “We’re dealing with a system that’s just going to continue human trafficking. They went down 1600 inmates and released people on the old jail balance bill. Now it’s almost 1900 inmates.”

“They’re just replacing people, not releasing people. It’s a business. Every human life here is based on a dollar. It doesn’t matter if you’re spending money on this GTL network or buying these overpriced canteen items. People are being denied the full medical treatment they need. […] The jail is providing false information to the media. The more people whose eyes are opened to conditions like this the better.”

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 www.covidincustody.org for more information.

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