By Angela Khov
Santa Clara County’s Main Jail and Elmwood Correctional Complex have faced numerous devastating COVID-19 outbreaks since the pandemic emerged. Under the California Public Health Dept.’s vaccine distribution framework, incarcerated people and staff have been given priority amongst other vulnerable groups since they live or work in congregated settings.
Over the last few weeks, Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office has been providing vaccinations for the jail population and staff. Details about the rollout were shared during a County Board of Supervisors’ meeting in early February. According to the Sheriff’s Office, “368 of 817 sworn custody staff, 107 of 208 civilian custody staff, and 275 of 455 enforcement staff have been vaccinated through the Public Safety Clinic.” Meaning, less than 50 percent of all staff members have been vaccinated. Almost 800 employees refused vaccines according to a Public Safety and Justice Committee report in early February.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, vaccinations are also being administered to the incarcerated population, but no data is available on the acceptance rate. Since the pandemic emerged, 590 cumulative COVID-19 cases have been reported, of which 164 were confirmed during booking and 426 were confirmed in custody. Over the past month, the jail population has risen to the mid-2300s — the highest it has been since April 2020. To date, approximately 230 correctional officers and jail staff have also contracted the virus.
During a Public Safety and Justice meeting held on March 4, Sheriff Laurie Smith stated that compliance for rapid testing, a diagnostic test that detects COVID-19 infections within 15 minutes, is at 100 percent. A representative of the Public Defender’s Office highlighted that nearly the entire attorney staff was vaccinated. In addition, the Chief Probation Officer stated that many probation staff have been vaccinated, so they are back in the field and in-office.
Custody Health Services (CHS) reported during this meeting that pilot vaccinations at William F. James Boys Ranch, a youth detention center, and county jails began on Feb. 28. To increase the acceptance rate, CHS stated that brochures are being distributed to patients to educate them about vaccine safety. CHS added that these brochures are being sent to the parents of those in juvenile detention. Currently, 18-year-olds in juvenile detention are first in line to be vaccinated since they can consent to it themselves. At the time of this meeting, juvenile detention centers had no positive cases — a big improvement since Kron 4 reported an outbreak in December wherein nine youth and four staff members contracted COVID-19.
While county representatives have stated that vaccinations for jail population and staff are going well, there is little data available to back these claims. The Vanguard submitted multiple PRA requests for an aggregate count of the jail population that has been vaccinated. Despite waiting for two weeks and multiple follow-ups, Santa Clara County has failed to provide the requested data.
While vaccinations provide some protection against COVID-19, practices like mask-wearing, social distancing and sanitation should continue in accordance with CDC guidelines. Despite numerous outbreaks and hunger strikes at the jail, little has changed according to many currently incarcerated people.
After a massive outbreak and a nine-day hunger strike in January, jail administrators have still not fully responded to the demands for safer and sanitary conditions. On March 17, a letter from the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley addressed to the Santa Clara County BOS, specifically Supervisor Mike Wasserman and Sheriff Laurie Smith, demanded improved conditions for incarcerated people amidst the pandemic.
The letter describes the unlawful conditions incarcerated people are facing due to the pandemic. It states, “The County’s failure to take measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is particularly alarming because it disparately impacts Black and Latinx people, as well as people with disabilities, who make up most of the population in Santa Clara County Jails. Black and Latinx people and people with disabilities have been hit the hardest during the COVID-19 pandemic.” It also argues that the county jails have violated the jail population’s Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act by being unresponsive to their medical and mental health needs.
The letter claims that the county has not been complying with the CDC’s guidelines regarding mask-wearing, particularly, to regularly wash and replace masks provided to incarcerated people. Individuals are given paper masks that either rip too easily or cannot be washed, or they are provided with inadequate crocheted masks. Many state that they have only one mask, and if they request a new one, it takes days to receive it.
The letter also states that jail administration has also been disregarding CDC’s recommendation to disinfect commonly used surfaces. Incarcerated people reported that conditions are highly unsanitary and those in the dorms are not given enough cleaning materials. In some instances, they are only given menstrual pads to clean with, or they will have to use their own towels or clothing items. Further, there is a massive mental health crisis that has been ignored. Many are not able to receive therapy or follow-up care in a timely manner.