“The Whole Jail Will Be Infected Eventually” — Incarcerated Voices from Elmwood CC Highlight Inhumane Conditions During COVID-19

By Linh Nguyen

SANTA CLARA COUNTY– Seven incarcerated people inside Elmwood Correctional Complex in Milpitas, CA, Santa Clara County, expose the unsafe, unsanitary conditions inside the jail and blatant negligence from the jail’s correctional officers during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

They revealed their experiences with the Davis Vanguard in a series of phone calls. All of their names have been changed to protect them from potential retaliatory actions and repercussions from jail officials. 

James is 45 years old and has been incarcerated at Elmwood for 13 months. He tested positive for COVID-19 in mid July, along with everyone else in his dorm– M3A. 

James stated that no one in the jail was tested until June 2020– 4 months after the pandemic emerged.  The population was called in for testing one night after people started show symptoms. They were lined up and given test swabs to swab their own noses. The nurses did not conduct the test; they only collected the test baggie. 

James stated that the disease began spreading when jail officers placed someone in the dorm without testing them. This person was most likely newly booked. Two days later, an outbreak occurred and at least 12 people were infected. 

Tom, a 46 year old who has been incarcerated at Elmwood for over four years tested positive for COVID-19 in July. He stated that everyone in his dorm caught the virus after jail officers placed a COVID-19 positive person in their dorm, showing blatant disregard for the obvious consequences. According to Tom, once the officers realized their mistake, the person was removed from the dorm but it was too late as they had already been exposed. 

Many individuals did not receive their test results after being tested for COVID-19; they had to specifically request nurses for their results, regardless of the test status.

Dan, a 40 year old who has been incarcerated at Elmwood for three years, said, “The jail tests people, but the validity of their tests is questionable.” He added that they do not provide test results unless someone requests them. Even then, the jail population does not know if tests are being administered properly because they are swabbing their own noses and dropping them in a container where cross contamination could happen. 

James said that another concern was whether the medical staff were correctly processing the tests. He said that tests can be reported as positive one day, but as negative the following day. 

Everyone who caught COVID-19 in this outbreak were thrown into multiple housing units as a “quarantine” solution. Jail officers only moved the positive patients from open dorms into cells. They were let out for 15 minutes a day for quick showers before being put back into the cells. 

“It was brutal,” James said regarding the conditions in quarantine. “It was bad. Very depressing. Anxiety. For those of us with anxiety problems, those of us who have little mental health issues or what not, it was very, very depressing. We didn’t know if we were going to make it out of this place or if we were all going to get very much sick.”

Because of negative mental health repercussions of solitary-confinement-style quarantines, many incarcerated people refuse testing in the event their test results are positive and they are placed in quarantine.

Despite this, at Elmwood, the jail officials pushed the jail population to get tested.

Steve, a 46 year old who has been incarcerated at Elmwood for 16 months, has not tested positive for COVID-19, but suspected that he might have contracted the virus due to symptoms he was experiencing in mid August, like shortness of breath and headaches. 

Steve is a mental health patient at Elmwood. He stated that due to the pandemic, he was unable to see the doctor and his appointments had been pushed back by a month. Even when he got to see the doctor, the visits were very short, not even three minutes long. 

“I just feel like we’re being deprived of being heard,” Steve said. “My mental health situation, I believe, is pretty severe as far as the medications I’m taking. I find myself sleeping too much, not focused, I find myself easily getting distracted, easily irritated. I want to speak to the doctor, but with COVID-19, everything was put on hold. I had to struggle with myself and my thoughts. It was ugly.”

Steve recalled that one person at Elmwood died from COVID-19 complications in April, though he was not sure since jail officials did not confirm the death. 

James said that the severity of the symptoms they experienced did not change the jail’s response to the pandemic. 

“They did not take proper procedure on how they were housing people, on the cleaning supplies, on the clothing,” James stated. “There was nothing really done besides giving us a set of masks in the beginning of March and then telling us to wash them ourselves, but here, we don’t even have the right washing supplies.”

George, a 21 year old who has been incarcerated at Elmwood for 18 months, also had COVID-19 around the same time as James and Tom, around June or July. At the time, George was housed in the M8B dorm. He found out he had contracted the virus when someone in his dorm tested positive following which everyone started getting sick. He was then tested and it came back positive. 

Jail officers kept the positive patients in the cells and told them to drink water. 

“They didn’t help much,” George said. “They didn’t give us disinfectants. They just checked our vitals. They didn’t give us medication like Tylenol or headache relief medication.”

George said that if a person’s vitals indicated deteriorating symptoms, jail officers did not do anything about it. The person was left in the cell. 

Those who tested positive were first moved into M4, a cell-living situation, and then moved into an open dorm with everyone else who tested positive, which was around 60 people. While the space would normally be large enough to hold 60 people, during the pandemic, it was crammed and did not allow for social distancing. 

George said that the people should have been split into two groups so that it would not be compact and people could distance themselves. 

During quarantine, they did not have any cleaning or personal supplies, including masks, disinfectants or toilet paper.

“In a way, I felt like they left us in there,” George said. “The COs are supposed to walk every hour but they did not do that. They weren’t wearing masks or protection gear. They put us in an environment that’s worse for us. They won’t help us.”

Andy, a 33 year old who has been incarcerated at Elmwood since 2017, said that the jail has been withholding necessary items from them. For example, masks are donated to the jail from outside donors, but they never received these masks. 

Andy also detailed a recent act of negligence from the jail staff. A few weeks ago, the toilets overflowed and spewed sewage and feces onto the jail floor. The jail staff did not clean it until the next day, though they told them that it would be cleaned soon after it happened.

“We had to sleep with shit in the air,” Andy said. “They couldn’t even open up the yard door to get air. Like it’s not their problem, that’s how they see it.”

In regards to COVID-19 testing, Andy said that the nurse tested him, in contrast to what the other narratives stated about swabbing their own noses. 

However, Andy said that one reason for individuals choosing to swab their own noses was that a few nurses swabbed too roughly and caused several people to bleed during the test. 

There was a rumor circulating in the jail that the testing swabs were actually already infected with the virus. While Andy did not believe the rumor, he stated that many believed it.

Brian, a 24 year old who has been incarcerated at Elmwood for 15 months, contracted COVID-19 in mid July. He had suspected that he would contract the virus eventually due to “the way the regulations are” and the number of people moving in and out of the jail. 

Brian said that jail officials were placing people with COVID-19 with those without, and blindly moving people around.

When he was sick, the jail officers did not give him any medication or offer him medical treatment; he was only given cough drops. 

Brian stated that at one point, him and others were placed into dorm M1, where they were not allowed to shower and they were not being fed. 

“It just doesn’t make sense because they let people in here with the coronavirus, they infect other people, and then once we’re infected, they put us back into a quarantine and then when we’re done with quarantine, they put us back with people who don’t have the coronavirus,” Brian said. 

“They don’t know how to control this,” he said. “It’s going to spread everywhere. This whole jail will be infected eventually. It’s almost impossible not to get it inside here.”

The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office’s (SCCSO) website recently released the total historical number of COVID-19 cases at the Main Jail and Elmwood Correctional Complex. As of Oct. 9, SCCSO has reported only 194 confirmed cases between both jails. As of Oct. 11, the jail population at Elmwood is 1438 people. 

Brian estimated that at least 250 people in Elmwood have been infected. 

Jack, a 34 year old who has been incarcerated at Elmwood for a year, said that there is no room for social distancing and they are not getting tested as frequently as they could. He felt that a lot of things could be handled differently. He has “not yet” contracted COVID-19 and hopes he will not. 

He affirmed the other narratives, stating that they are not provided enough sanitation supplies and that people moving in and out of the building, threatening them with the virus. Even some of the correctional officers come in without masks.

After about two weeks, individuals who were COVID-19 positive, were released to the general population without being tested to confirm their case had been resolved. George said that they “guessed” that he was good and sent him back to M8.

In the middle of July, the incarcerated people in Elmwood participated in a hunger strike to protest the unsanitary and unsafe living conditions in the jail during the pandemic. Ironically, during this strike jail officers regularly checked the participants’ blood pressure to ensure their health.

After the hunger strike there was no change to how the jail handled living conditions.

“We’re still short on supplies,” James said. “They’re limiting tissues, they’re limiting spray bottles. We have to bring our own rags and wet them with our own soap to clean the phones before we use them.”

Even after the outbreak, jail officials continued to allow new books to share spaces with those in the jail without being tested. 

Dan had not been confirmed infected with COVID-19 but said suspects that outbreaks began in February, before the COVID-19 pandemic was publicly deemed a serious threat. 

In early February, everyone in his dorm, M3D, got sick and experienced symptoms of COVID-19 including nausea and loss of taste. Those who were sick put in medical slips. No one was tested because they did not suspect that it was COVID-19. One person was hospitalized with what they believed was pneumonia at the time. 

When COVID-19 became more widespread in March, the only guidelines the incarcerated people were given was to wash their hands and try to socially distance, which was difficult because they were in overcrowded dorms. Jail officers did not take the pandemic seriously. 

“If one gets sick, pretty much everyone gets sick,” Dan said. 

Dan said that he does not feel safe in the jail without the proper cleaning supplies and hygiene supplies.

“It’s a constant reminder of the possibility that you might contract coronavirus and there’s the possibility that if you do contract it, it might be severe, it might not be severe, it might be life threatening, it might not be life threatening,” Dan said. 

“That puts you in a predicament where you’re concerned and you’re precautious about it,” he continued. “But at the same time, it’s difficult to be precarious about it because the county jail does not really do its due diligence to try to provide sanitation or sanitary things or wipes or anything of that nature.”

Dan also said that jail officials were very secretive about the severity of the virus in the jail.

“When we were asking questions about the coronavirus, instead of giving us information that we needed to safeguard ourselves, they were ‘hush-hush’ about it. Like, ‘We don’t know what you’re talking about,’” Dan said. “They were playing the role like they didn’t know. If no one asks about it, they don’t have to acknowledge it. We have to hear about it from other inmates who get to go to court or see medical. That’s how we find out.”

Andy described the jail as a community that protects each other from the spread of the virus. Because the jail staff are negligent towards providing proper resources for protection, they take it upon themselves to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

“The people inside take care of each other,” he said. “If we feel like someone coughing or not feeling well, we would politely ask them to remove themselves from the dorm. If it were up to the COs, they would leave the person in there and not worry about it for a day or two until they think medical is ready to come in and check the individual out, giving the virus a chance to spread.”

As for court proceedings, everyone has been impacted by having their court hearing dates pushed back by months. James said that this is due to the fault of the County District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office and Probation Office since many of their employees are not coming in for work and are overbooked with cases.

George has also had limited contact with his lawyer and has not had a court appearance since March. 

Dan has not been able to go to court since February. 

Steve has not been to court in seven months, which, as he has heard, is “not normal.”

Jack has been able to go to court since the pandemic began. He said that he was around people who were coughing and people not wearing masks. The only time they are told to put on masks is when they enter the courtroom. 

On the transportation bus to court, there was no room for social distancing. There were about 15 to 20 people on the bus with him. In the courtroom, the jail staff “made it seem like they were doing the right thing but they aren’t.”

Andy said that he was transported in a bus made to carry eight people, but the correctional officers fit 12 people on it, despite the threat of COVID-19.

In the courtroom, defendants are not given much time to speak with their counsel. Jack said that he does not have the privacy to speak with his defense counsel while maintaining social distance. The prosecutor is also close enough to be able to hear what the defense counsel is saying to the defendant. 

Andy stated that recently, jail officers started interfering with the defendants’ rights to speak with their legal counsel on the phone from inside the jail. Prior, defendants were able to speak with their legal counsel and properly finish a conversation. Recently, the jail officers have been forcing the defendants off the phone before they can finish speaking with their lawyers.

Brian had previously been incarcerated at Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County. He talked about the wealth difference between Alameda County and Santa Clara County, stating that Santa Clara County is wealthier than Alameda, but the living conditions at Santa Rita Jail were better than at Elmwood. 

“Alameda County is more lenient and is more fair. Santa Clara County is corrupt,” he said. “The things they are doing is not justice. The things they are doing are against the law. Everything is not fair. They make you guilty before innocent. They don’t follow the law until they’re forced to.”

Jack also corroborated Brian’s statement that Santa Clara County is “so unfair.” He said that bail is “boosted so high” that families cannot afford to pay it, so the defendants are sent to the county jail, despite the fact that Santa Clara County adopted the COVID-19 emergency bail schedule implemented by the Judicial Council.

“If we had our cell phones in here to take pictures of a lot of things, [people outside the jail] would know the truth,” Andy said. “All we got is our voices and our words against the COs, so it’s difficult trying to get our voices heard.”

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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