Lawyers Urge Santa Clara County BOS & Sheriff to Address Inhumane Conditions During COVID-19 At County Jails

By Alexander Ramirez and Angela Khov

The Law Foundation of Silicon Valley (LFSV) presented a letter to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on March 17, criticizing the Santa Clara County Main Jail and Elmwood Correctional Facility for their failure to protect incarcerated people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Law Foundation conducted nearly 60 interviews over the last 11 months, uncovering multiple examples of the jail’s lacking procedures, which they claim violates incarcerated people’s Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment Rights.

“Constitutional Rights are not suspended during a crisis. Neither is Santa Clara County’s obligation to comply with state and federal disability anti-discrimination laws. Santa Clara County’s policies and actions violate detained and incarcerated people’s Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment Rights to be free from cruel and unusual punishment and state inflicted harm. 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.”

Because underlying conditions such as chronic kidney disease, Down Syndrome, heart conditions and Type 2 diabetes, make individuals susceptible to developing complications associated with COVID-19, the lack of masking, unsanitary conditions, and medical negligence reported in LFSV’s interviews, are also argued to violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Since the pandemic emerged, at least 584 incarcerated people and 233 correctional officers have contracted the virus. After a massive outbreak in January, incarcerated people went on a nine-day hunger strike starting on Jan. 13 to protest “conditions of confinement and cruel and unusual punishment” at the jails.

Active cases in Santa Clara county jails (Main Jail & Elmwood Correctional Center). More information:

Many incarcerated people who were interviewed by the LFSV stated that masking, a key recommendation from CDC to prevent transmission through respiratory droplets, is not being followed.

Incarcerated people say that Medical or Sheriff’s Office staff provide only one cloth mask or crocheted mask to last for months without a replacement. Tears in masks and the inability to clean them, has made masking ineffective for many. 

“People are not able to effectively clean the single mask they’ve been given. At least one individual reported having to clean their mask in a toilet because no other option was available,” the LFSV stated. 

One resident approximated that nearly two-thirds of the jail population do not have usable masks at any given time.

Detained individuals are able to file a request to the Sheriff’s Office for a new mask. Another account stated that these requests are often denied or require payment, and if the request is approved, it can take days for the mask to actually arrive.

Even correctional officers, about one out of three, are said to not wear their masks all of the time. “This issue persists even after all custody staff were upgraded to medical-grade N95 masks and were instructed to consistently wear them. Incarcerated individuals were not offered the mask upgrade,” the letter pointed out.

While the CDC recommends cleaning commonly-touched surfaces and items regularly to prevent transmission, LFSV’s interviews suggest that the Sheriff’s Office is failing to do so.

Incarcerated people are provided with cleaning supplies such as pine-sol and diluted bleach every three weeks, which many say should be replenished daily since the materials do not last long. 

Due to the lack of sponges and cloths, many resorted to using their own socks and towels to clean. Jail staff also provided them Kotex menstrual pads and brooms as a replacement.

These reports do not capture the conditions of quarantine cells that incarcerated people are sent to if they test positive for the virus or if they were exposed to a positive case. These cells are said to contain, “dried feces and urine, blood smeared on the walls, moldy food, and rat infestations.”

Naturally, residents report anxiety, stress, and PTSD from these quarantine conditions, and sometimes deny COVID-19 tests for fear of going into quarantine.

Apart from quarantine, many report not having basic access to showers in the facility. In one instance, ten individuals had to share a bucket of water for a “bird bath.”

Other instances involve quarantined individuals and individuals outside of the infirmary having to choose between a shower or a phone call because of the ten minute program time.

This time limit is also a reason that many cite for the lack of proper practice social distancing in the jails; other than the fact that facilities are still packed to the brim.

Whether it be the bunk bed setting, or the shoulder-to-shoulder medication lines that some incarcerated people have chosen to omit for fear of contracting the virus.

To add insult to injury, many recount a decrease of attention towards their mental wellness.

One individual reports having to submit twenty grievances before they received therapy for their disability.

The Law Foundation also included a list of remedies enclosed in their letter.

They requested that the County take the following remedial steps to avoid further violation of Santa Clara County residents’ Constitutional Rights:

(1) Provide new, medical-grade masks to incarcerated people daily;

(2) Immediately vaccinate incarcerated people forced to live in congregate spaces;

(3) Require custody staff to be vaccinated and/or penalize staff who do not properly wear masks;

(4) Enforce social distancing and capacity limits when transporting detained and incarcerated people to and from court; if this is not possible, take steps to reduce the jail’s population;

(5) Extend programming time so that detained and incarcerated people can complete all required tasks while maintaining social distance;

(6) Provide weekly adequate (and non-diluted) cleaning materials to detained and incarcerated people, while also making additional materials available upon request;

(7) Provide antibacterial soap and hand sanitizer to detained and incarcerated people at no cost;

(8) Space beds such that they are at least six feet apart; if this is not possible, take steps to reduce the jail’s population; 

(9) Enforce protocols that require several negative COVID-19 tests before returning from quarantine to the general population;

(10) Improve quarantine conditions through thorough, regular cleaning and increased check ins from medical professionals;

(11) Increase testing frequency from two weeks to every three to seven days until no active COVID-19 cases remain;

(12) Improve grievance procedures in Santa Clara County jails; require comprehensive and prompt responses to all concerns; and

(13) Strictly comply with all CDC guidelines”

A response from the Sheriff’s Office and Board of Supervisors was requested by March 31.

These instances have also been made public through interviews with the incarcerated population. When incarcerated individuals at Elmwood were interviewed in early October, they explained the inhumane conditions they were experiencing. 

One man who tested positive for COVID-19 said he was put into “quarantine” in a solitary confinement cell.

“It was bad. Very depressing. Anxiety. For those of us with anxiety problems, those of us who have little mental health issues or whatnot, it was very, very depressing. We didn’t know if we were going to make it out of this place or if we were all going to get very much sick.”

Another man recalled, “They did not take proper procedure on how they were housing people, on the cleaning supplies, on the clothing. There was nothing really done besides giving us a set of masks in the beginning of March and then telling us to wash them ourselves, but here, we don’t even have the right washing supplies.”

An individual who has been incarcerated at Elmwood since 2017 described how staff refused to keep areas of the jail clean. Toilets overflowed and spilled feces onto the floor. 

“We had to sleep with shit in the air. They couldn’t even open up the yard door to get air. Like it’s not their problem, that’s how they see it.”

Currently, vaccinations are underway at Elmwood, the Main Jail, and juvenile detention facilities. Vaccinations started on January 26, 2021. As of March 25, 2021, 1732 incarcerated people have been screened for the vaccine, and at least 858 have consented to receive it. 

During the Public Safety and Justice Committee meeting on April 1, a representative from Custody Health services gave an updated count of how many patients have been vaccinated. 795 individuals have been vaccinated fully, 164 people have gotten their first dose, and 49 youth have been vaccinated thus far. Jail administration prioritized high-risk individuals as well as those over the age of 65. 

Now, vaccines are available to all that are eligible at Elmwood and the Main Jail, and those who are 16 and older at the juvenile halls. If someone refuses a vaccine but changes their mind, they are able to submit a white card with their request. To increase acceptance rates, jail staff state that they are offering brochures and putting up posters in different languages to educate patients about the myths and truths of the vaccine. When patients go through vaccination screenings, nurses also give them more information. 

According to the Sheriff’s Office, 1,123 staff members, including 572 custody staff have received vaccines. Meaning 60 percent of the total staff and 55 percent of custody staff have been vaccinated.

About The Author

The Covid In-Custody Project partners with the Davis Vanguard to report on the pandemic's impact on California's county jails and state prisons. See for more information.

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