By Tiffany Devlin
An outbreak at Santa Rita Jail that started with 50 COVID-19 cases before Christmas Eve, has spilled over into 2021. As of Jan. 26, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office reports 76 active cases in the jail. Every dorm has been quarantined as a result of the ongoing outbreak.
Many incarcerated individuals are speaking out about the lack of medical care, cleaning supplies and negligence by staff.
In a voice recording obtained by SRJ Solidarity, one man can be heard pleading for help.
“We need help in Santa Rita, real bad, it’s getting out of control, and we can’t handle it no more. We just need help here. Please, somebody help us.”
He is one of many others who have come forward to shed light on the inhumane conditions at the jail.
Jenny’s husband has been incarcerated at Santa Rita Jail for a probation violation since early December. He was homeless at the time, and was picked up by police for suspicion of car theft. He was sentenced to 4-months in County Jail, and will be released in March.
In an interview with the Vanguard, Jenny shared that the fear of contracting COVID-19 and receiving no medical care is traumatizing the men inside.
“People are panicking, scared and shaken,” she told the Vanguard. He is scared for his life, and questions, “Are we going to die? Is this our fate?”
Upon booking, jail staff did a symptoms check and offered a COVID-19 test, which he accepted, although it was not mandatory. He quarantined in HU 22 or 21 for two weeks and was subsequently moved to HU 34, where he started to get sick.
Before he tested positive, two positive patients in HU 34 were moved into quarantine. However, this was to no effect since the entire unit got sick.
Jenny suspects that while officials sanitized the areas where the positive patients were residing, the virus spread to the rest of HU 34 because they were isolated too late or the sanitation was insufficient. Nevertheless, everyone in the unit became unwell with fever, headaches, tiredness and severe nausea.
“Everybody was so sick,” Jenny said. “Nobody wanted to go outside to get fresh air. Inmates usually never say no to the option to go outside.”
Her husband saw jail staff completely ignore one man who was very sick and kept requesting help. Everyone in HU 34 was tested 2-3 days prior to Dec. 23– the day of the outbreak.
He developed very severe symptoms for a few days. He lost his sense of smell, taste, and was severely weak and nauseous. The men in the unit received no medical attention from nurses or staff.
“No help was given,” said Jenny, “… one person fainted and the guards took him away. No one knows what happened to him, if he got medical help or not.”
“After crying for help for two days, another person collapsed,” Jenny continued. “People yell for help for days at a time, however no one listens to them.”
On Dec. 21, Jenny’s husband said the entire HU 34 was quarantined with no available end date.
She called the jail to inquire when COVID-19 tests were being administered, and when the results would be available for HU 34. She got very vague answers, and was told that only two individuals were COVID-19 positive. The administrator had very little knowledge of what was happening within the facility.
“I am very helpless,” Jenny expressed to the Vanguard. She voiced concerns around poor hygiene, cleanliness at the jail and the inability to socially distance. Her husband was sharing a bathroom with multiple men who were all pending their test results. No one knew who could be carrying the virus.
On Dec. 23, Jenny received a call from her husband.
“He was very sick,” she said. “He wanted me to help him out because it was evening time and the nurse visits in the morning. If he made a request alone, it would have taken 72 hours until he would have received any treatment.”
“I had to plead for immediate medical attention for him,” said Jenny. She called the jail again out of distress, to which the administrator showed no urgency or concern. She told Jenny to, “Ask him to talk to the nurse practitioner tomorrow.”
“I had to request a number of times. Later she took action and he got help only after I mentioned that he has cold cough and flu-like symptoms, and he is in a regular housing unit.” said Jenny.
“Who is taking care of them or supporting them?” she said with concern regarding incarcerated people who do not have family or loved ones advocating for them from the outside.
On Dec. 28, after testing positive, Jenny’s husband and another person were transferred from HU 34 to the Outpatient Housing Unit, the medical ward. The day before, he had mentioned that almost every person in the unit was sick.
According to the Sheriff’s Office report, there were 55 active COVID-19 cases on this day.
While the exact day on which he tested positive is unclear, he was not informed that he was positive until he arrived in the quarantine unit.
During his stay at the OPHU, a nurse prescribed him two Tylenol tablets per day. She would visit in the morning everyday to do a temperature check and monitor his oxygen levels. If he needed any additional help, however, he had to go to the nurse’s station.
On Jan. 10, Jenny’s husband was sent back to the general population from OPHU, where he was quarantined. He was not retested, and was deemed “recovered” based on his symptoms. Wellpath, SRJ’s medical provider does not practice a test-based strategy to release those in quarantine.
He remains incarcerated for a probation violation that he contends was a misunderstanding. He has been unable to reach his public defender for several weeks to seek early-release or leniency from the judge.
Regarding sanitation and cleaning supplies, he says that the soap was very hard and would not lather up. No other cleaning supplies were provided despite multiple requests.
“[My] husband and others are hesitant to repeatedly ask correctional officers for cleaning supplies because they may hit/slap/push them or physically assault them.” said Jenny.
Previous testimonies from incarcerated individuals describe severe medical neglect, harassment, and retaliation for speaking out against correctional officers at the jail.
With the newest spike in cases at the jail and slow distribution of vaccines, COVID-19 remains a dangerous risk for the entire jail including its 180 medically vulnerable patients.
“The jail should release people if they can’t take care of them.” said Jenny. Decarcerate Alameda County echoed the same sentiment in a recent Press Conference.
“The purpose of a jail is to punish. You can’t get well in a cell,” said Amber Akemi Piatt, director of the Health Instead of Punishment Program at Human Impact Partners when addressing the outbreak at SRJ.
Sheila Dunlap, a speaker from the press conference, shared the experience of her sister who has been incarcerated at SRJ since Nov. 2020.
While her sister was required to quarantine for 10 days at intake, there were two separate occasions where jail staff moved someone into her room “directly off the street” without being quarantined beforehand.
Jamie Navarro, a whistleblower who faced retaliation for speaking out against the jail, detailed a similar situation.
Jamie was in a pod considered high-risk, holding pregnant and elderly women among others. She stated that some newly quarantined individuals were “straight from the street”, suggesting that high-risk patients are being mixed with others who are not high-risk.
“She asked for cleaning supplies.. And to no avail they didn’t give her anything to clean properly.” Dunlap remarked. When her sister questioned this process, she was ignored.
Dunlap’s sister is also asthmatic, making her high-risk for developing complications related to COVID-19.
“Just because they’re there, doesn’t mean they’re not human, or that they’re inhumane. But they treat them like they’re nothing, like they’re dogs, or they don’t have family… Animals are treated better than inmates, and people that are actually there at Santa Rita.” said Dunlap.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” Dunlap continued, “we can do what we can here, you know as far as keeping everything clean, but what about the inmates that are there? They’re at the mercy of the officers, so to speak.”
*** Name changed for anonymity