By Angela Khov
Santa Clara County Jails reported a second major COVID-19 outbreak at the beginning of January 2021, yet again highlighting the severity of the pandemic behind bars. To date, the highest number of positive cases on a single-day is 127 within a population of 2212 people, reported on January 11.
The first outbreak at the jails was reported during August 2020, when positive cases surged to the 80s and 90s. After a dip, it rose quickly in December, reaching triple digits by January.
During this time, hundreds of tests were administered every week. On January 8 alone, over 300 tests were reported.
It is important to note that between January 18 and February 8, Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office did not provide any statistics on the infection or testing rates. They failed to fix their data reporting errors during this three-week period despite multiple requests to do so.
The unsafe and unlivable conditions during the outbreak at the Santa Clara Main Jail, prompted incarcerated people to begin a hunger strike on January 13. Over 50 people participated in a nine-day long strike demanding changes to the conditions at the jail.
A few weeks ago, Silicon Valley De-Bug released a document revealing the horrors and mistreatment many have been facing at the Main Jail over the last 10 months. Through surveys and interviews, SV-debug reported that:
- 85 percent of people surveyed are in dorms with bunks that are less than 6 feet apart.
- 97 percent of people surveyed do not have enough space to socially distance at all times.
- 100 percent of people surveyed have insufficient materials to keep themselves and their units sanitized.
- 100 percent of people surveyed are not able to social distance while using the bathrooms and affirmed that they are not sanitized in between uses.
- 85 percent of people surveyed said that jail staff does not wear their masks constantly. A lot of staff wear their masks around their neck.
- 55 percent of people surveyed revealed that they were not able to receive the results from their COVID tests.
The Davis Vanguard spoke to seven incarcerated men at Elmwood Correctional Complex in Milpitas, who disclosed concerns with sanitation, COVID-19 testing practices and the impact of solitary-style quarantine on their mental health.
One man explained, “The jail tests people, but the validity of their tests is questionable.” He argues that incarcerated individuals swabbing their own noses instead of medical professionals, is causing false results.
Due to the pandemic, mental health patients are not able to get the care they need. One patient at Elmwood 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.”
Many attested to the unwillingness of Correctional Officers to take safety precautions seriously. “They did not follow proper procedure regarding housing, cleaning supplies, clothing. There was nothing really done besides giving us a set of masks at the beginning of March and then telling us to wash them ourselves, but here, we don’t even have the right washing supplies.” He also revealed that COs would walk around without protective gear or masks.
SV De-bug also reported similar accounts from incarcerated people and their family members.
During one of the first outbreaks last year, 10 COVID-positive patients at the Main Jail were not allowed to shower while in quarantine. A mother of one of the men stated, “He was not sentenced to death by COVID and he was not sentenced to be stripped of basic rights to shower and maintain hygiene. He should be allowed to take showers and maintain hygiene especially during a pandemic.”
Quarantine cells were also reported to be highly unsanitary, to the point of being covered in vomit, urine, and feces. A loved one shared, “[He] along with everyone that tested positive were moved to 6A to unsanitary cells with feces on the wall, molded food, dried urine… [He] should not have to clean other people’s feces, especially during a pandemic and while COVID positive. This is not the standard care for any human especially while COVID positive showing symptoms.”
Another account explains that jail staff are supposed to follow procedures outlined in the COVID-19 Prevention and Control Plan, including abiding by the county’s health rules at work and outside of work. Meaning, staff should stay home when they are sick, wear a mask, and social distance at work as well as off duty.
On Dec. 17 reports emerged of a “mask-free party” that several deputies attended. Photos of officers partying without masks or social distancing raised alarms for those incarcerated, as they grew concerned about the virus spreading to them from other deputies.
Additionally, the Sheriff’s Office Custody Bureau Inmate Rulebook, states, “Inmates are not required to clean up bodily fluids. If someone is sick, notify an officer to request a Biohazard Team to clean up the area. Bodily fluids can carry disease, including HIV/AIDS.” This rulebook also declares, “Do not go into another person’s cell or bunk area.”
Despite these guidelines, he states that incarcerated people are expected to clean up the messes left behind in cells.
“Prisoners in 7B were put on lockdown for 28 days leaving them with only 30 minutes out of cell everyday and canceled visits. Because a majority of prisoners have tested positive of Covid-19 or received symptoms of Covid-19, some began to refuse testing after 1st hand experiences of being moved to the infirmary and then the severely mental health cells on the 6th floor which were infested with feces on the floor and walls including other bodily fluids.”
“Yet prisoners were forced to quarantine in these cells and clean them while symptomatic with the virus,” he says.
“The entire infirmary was restricted from showering for nearly a week and handed a mop bucket to take a bird bath. In the Women’s Facility, after one woman tested positive with the virus, she was moved to a cell full of bloody band-aids. A concerned mother whose son was in Elmwood donated over 8000 facial coverings due to lack of supply the Jail provided for the incarcerated.”
After the hunger strike on January 22, the Jail Captain held a meeting with a representative from the 7B housing unit. He expressed that staff would no longer go between COVID positive units and those with healthy people, guards would wear face coverings, and health guidelines would be followed.
While the January hunger strike’s main demand was to push staff to follow health guidelines, other demands included less use of solitary confinement as quarantine, a plan to make sure they received satisfactory medical treatment, and a plan for immediate and mass releases.
In early December of 2020, Dr. George Han, Deputy Health Officer of Santa Clara County, acknowledged the surge of COVID infections within detention centers, nursing homes, and care facilities. Han mentions, “The problem with congregate settings is there’s a lot of people in there. It’s difficult to do the kind of social distancing that we would want in a regular situation. The virus has a chance to spread more easily in congregate settings. We have the most cases we’ve ever had during the entire pandemic. It is more dangerous right now in our community than at any other point in the pandemic.”
Despite the Public Health Dept.’s acknowledgement of the increased risk incarcerated people are facing, those on strike and their loved ones contend that little has been done to remedy the inhumane conditions and curb the spread of outbreaks at the jails.