Hundreds of COVID-19 Cases at Santa Rita Jail – Run Like ‘Penal Colony’ Charge Critics


By Carlin Ross

DUBLIN, CA – The Alameda County-operated Santa Rita Jail – which is run like a “penal colony” according to one critic – is continuing to suffer a catastrophic COVID-19 outbreak, with more than 400  confirmed cases just between May and August, 2020 alone, according to prisoner advocates at a Monday news conference.

Amber Akemi Piatt, the director of the Health Instead of Punishment Program at Human Impact Partners (HIP), addressed the outbreak in the Santa Rita Jail, run by the Alameda County Sheriff and the fifth largest in the country.

Piatt charged the Sheriff’s Office has “long been plagued with scandal,” including “collaborating with ICE,” and “pressuring Oakland police to use tear gas against Black protesters.”

“Now,” she continued, “we must add the mis-handling of the COVID-19 pandemic to the long list of scandals.”

Piatt defined jails as a broader pattern of police abuse, while also a hotspot for COVID. She noted how jails are designed to be inhumane, overcrowded, and lack proper food or health care. Both she, and the American Public Health Association, call incarceration a “public health crisis.”

The Prison Policy Initiative has exposed how incarceration has driven up COVID cases: in Alameda County, there were more 400 confirmed cases between May 1st and August 1st attributable to mass incarceration.

In March, over 50 organizations in the community submitted a letter of demands to Alameda County Officials; however, their demands have still yet to be met.

They asked the jail to be decarcerated, for no new incarcerated persons to be sent to jail, to meet the immediate needs of people incarcerated already, and for the county to invest in the assets that make our community healthier.

Lina Garcia Schmidt, who works with the National Lawyers Guild, said Monday the county expected the outbreak coming. In just eight days, she said, COVID cases rose more than 2,000 percent in the jail. She also noted how this summer, the Sheriff’s proposal to deal with the outbreak was for “individuals to sleep head to toe.”

Lina added that the Sheriff has slowed down the testing in the prison. Last week, they tested less than 10 percent of the inmates, even though many reported symptoms of COVID, according to Schmidt, who argues the jail is going to claim the situation is handled when all the county has done is “stopped treating it.”

A prisoner hotline for Santa Rita jail, one inmate recently dialed in and said, “our spirits are broken.”

Piatt then explained the growing evidence on the harms of incarceration on public health. She spoke of how incarceration harms one’s mental and physical health, negatively impacts one’s family and community health, and harms people structurally marginalized.

“The purpose of a jail is to punish. You can’t get well in a cell,” Piatt concludes.

Yolanda Huang, a civil rights attorney in Alameda County, explained that despite the jail being “run like a penal colony,” there are “very few legal ways to hold a jail accountable.” She claims the only real way to know what’s going on inside is by talking to the prisoners.

Huang also commented as to how all the services within the jail are for profit functions: both food and medical care, which, in return, reduces the quality of food and medical care provided.

“Santa Rita Jail is run like a penal colony with an exclusive focus on punishment, and as a result is facing numerous class action lawsuits about conditions inside Santa Rita. Sheriff Ahern has publicly stated that everyone arrested and incarcerated in Santa Rita Jail are by definition liars and violent criminals,” said Huang.

The high refusal rate – 50 percent of the jail inmates refuse now to be tested for Covid-19 – demonstrates that the jail has created an extremely hostile environment and the inmates, distrustful of the jail and its motives, do not cooperate,” said Huang.

Piatt concluded the press conference by stating “the pandemic is giving us the opportunity and imperative to re-evaluate how we evaluate social, political, and economic issues in Alameda County and beyond.”

At this point in time, the Santa Rita Jail population levels – most jails in the state cut population by one-half or more to give the incarcerated room to social distance – are back at pre-pandemic numbers.

More information on the data can be found here:

Carlin Ross is a senior at Santa Clara University who double majors in English and philosophy. She’s originally from Bozeman, Montana.

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About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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One thought on “Hundreds of COVID-19 Cases at Santa Rita Jail – Run Like ‘Penal Colony’ Charge Critics”

  1. David Greenwald

    Editor’s note: The article originally said “thousands” but the number of positives at Santa Rita is currently 424.  We apologize for the error.

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