By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief
SACRAMENTO – A Sacramento County Superior Court judge here has agreed to release some of those incarcerated in the Sacramento County jails starting Monday, and at first blush it sounds like a good way to fight COVID-19 rampaging through the facilities.
But critics, like Decarcerate Sacramento, charged Friday that the number to actually be released will be woefully low, probably about 160 or so and a drop in the bucket in the battle to stop coronavirus sacrifices in the jails.
There are nearly 3,300 people incarcerated in Sacramento jails now, about 1,000 more than when the courts moved to empty the jails, hoping to prevent mass COVID-19 outbreaks.
Most people are being detained without any conviction and are just awaiting court hearings leading critics to say that those incarcerated are facing death sentences for often petty crimes.
Decarcerate Sacramento said less than five percent will be released this next week, in part because of all the exceptions to the court order, including exempting people in jail for misdemeanors like drunk driving, any domestic violence offense, charges involving sex offender registration and any “serious” or violent felony.
According to the Superior Court Order, people with less than 90 days left on their sentences will be released – if they are not among the long list of exceptions – “because the parties agree that it is in the best interest of public health.”
A VANGUARD INVESTIGATION months ago – including statements from those inside Sacramento jails – found that COVID-19 was much more widespread than officials would admit, and that those being held were collapsing in chow lines, and forced to use socks to cover their faces because no masks were available.
Currently, “there are 187 active COVID cases due to the Sheriff Department’s negligence,” said Decarcerate Sacramento, noting that prior to the court order, “Sheriff Scott Jones requested the release of at least 160 people, making clear that the only option to reduce the outbreak is to release those detained in Sacramento County Jails.”
And while the minimal release could have some small positive effect on the jails, Crystal Sanchez with the Sacramento Homeless Union noted it’ll not be good for people living on the streets, arguing, “For our end of things we know that this generally ends up in people ending up on the street unhoused with nothing. We are expecting a huge needs this week.
In a statement issued Friday, Decarcerate Sacramento said public health experts have long suggested jail populations – so that detainees could practice social distancing – should be reduced by at least 50 percent.
“By only considering extremely narrow categories of the population, Sheriff Jones is preventing the population reduction necessary to save lives, inside and outside the jails,” said Phil Summers, MD, MPH, an emergency medicine physician in Sacramento.
“Policies and preventative efforts by jail staff can only do so much, but it is a losing battle and outbreaks are inevitable in these conditions. Early release in an equitable manner and depopulation of the jail is the responsible solution,” he added.
In the early days of the pandemic, Sacramento County jail populations dropped by 30 percent after strong efforts by the County Public Defender office and community advocates.
“At that time, just over 300 cumulative cases had been reported in Sacramento County. We now have over 71,000 confirmed cases with an increase of roughly 800 new cases per day. While the pandemic escalated dramatically, Sacramento’s jail population steadily climbed back up to its dangerous pre-pandemic levels,” reports Decarcerate Sacramento.
“In just one week, 120 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Sacramento jails and 26 percent of the 460 tests administered during that time came back positive. While the Sheriff reports 187 active cases of people currently in custody, the Department has not tested everyone in the jails so the actual number of those infected is likely much higher,” the group added.
Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area who has worked with people detained in the Sacramento County jail system for the past four years, was among other critics who continue to demand mass emergency releases and sustained depopulation of the Sacramento County Jail system.
“We cannot continue arresting and incarcerating people into a system with no medical director and sub-constitutional medical care, where social distancing is impossible. We need Sheriff Jones and the Superior Court to exercise their leadership, and base their decisions on health and safety, not fear and tough-on-crime politics,” she said.
“Confining people and involuntarily exposing them to hazardous situations in which they may contract a deadly virus, is not only unethical, it is cruel and unusual,” said Dr. Summers.
Pamela Emanuel of Decarcerate Sacramento described her experiences in the jail, explained “I spent most of this pandemic incarcerated in the Sacramento County Jail system, and consistently witnessed outright medical neglect, unsanitary conditions, including bugs in the food, denial of showers and clean clothes, and zero access to disinfecting cleaning supplies.
And a family member who asked to remain anonymous, due to fear of retaliation, told Decarcerate Sacramento:
“Deputies continue to move between quarantine and non-quarantine cells, sometimes without masks, more than likely contributing to the super spread of the virus. I am appalled at the treatment my loved one is receiving while he is stuck in an 80-person dorm.
“At one point, he was put in quarantine for over a week without his medications, and was allowed to make only one phone call every three days. Jail staff even laughed at him when he requested his inhaler,” the family member added.
The jail has long been suspected of being a medical “hell hole” and lost a mass class action suit in recent year after reports of inhumane conditions, denial of medical care, denial of grievances forms regarding a lack of clean drinking water, feces and urine in the cells, women cleaning with sanitary napkins.
Covid-19 protections have been reported as non-existent. In addition to a lack of masks – reportedly they are now being offered – there is no social distancing, no medications, not even pain pills for body aches. And, according to reports, no real disinfecting supplies – only a spray bottle filled with a “green/citrus” liquid, but no bleach or other real disinfectants.
Recently, according to those incarcerated, a jail nurse made a loud statement announcing, “you all have tested positive for the coronavirus.”
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