By Jannat Alam
Vanguard reporter Jannat Alam spoke with an individual incarcerated in the Fresno County Jail — the hardest hit correctional facility in the United States with a total of 3,985 total confirmed positive cases, most of which were contracted during the initial outbreak in June 2020. The individual, referred to as Anthony as per request to remain partially anonymous, details his experiences with the jail’s inadequate pandemic protocol, contraction of the virus, and the subsequent lack of medical support.
“We were on quarantine, and they were bringing in people from the streets.”
Anthony contracted COVID-19 in December of 2020. He felt that the absence of segregation between newly booked individuals and the general population, was the main cause for his infection. He stated that his pod received new books on a daily basis, whose infection statuses were dubious.
Though Fresno County Jail tests new books at intake, they are placed into the general population before the test results are returned. Unlike some counties, like Alameda County, where newly booked individuals at Santa Rita Jail are subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine regardless of their test result during booking, Fresno County has not implemented any protocol to mandate quarantine after booking or even segregate new books from the general population until their test results arrive.
Fresno County Sheriff Coroner Margaret Mims has gone on record saying, “the jail does not have the ability to isolate inmates and quarantine them before they are placed with the general population.” She cited the jail’s issues with overpopulation and funding as the key reason.
Anthony recollects that after a few new books with pending test results were placed in his pod, one of them received a positive test result. Consequently, others in the pod who had been exposed to him, including Anthony, became infected. Despite the pod housing active cases and being under quarantine, jail staff continued to place more new books into the pod.
When Anthony tested positive, he was not placed in medical isolation. He was moved to a quarantine floor in the jail, where he was housed with two other symptomatic, though not confirmed positive, individuals. Anthony expressed his frustration regarding the lack of foresight into potential infection scenarios.
Conditions in the Jail
Fresno County Jail houses three buildings, and most floors are sectioned into housing units called ‘pods.’ Each pod houses 72 individuals, and is structured into dormitory-style housing.
Anthony described it as a “big old room with a bunch of bunk beds.”
The beds are separated by 2-3 feet, and according to him, the lack of space is inherent to the structure of the dorms, and effectively inhibits any opportunity for proper social distancing.
“We’re all in the same pod, running around each other.”
Recounting the days leading up to his positive diagnosis, Anthony details the lack of proper medical response from the jail staff.
To receive medical care, incarcerated people must submit an official request or a medical slip. When Anthony began to feel the initial symptoms of the virus, such as fatigue, headaches, and fever, he submitted multiple medical slips to request medical assistance. The correctional officers reportedly ignored these initial slips.
“My first two, actually, were ignored,” recalled Anthony.
Anthony continued submitting medical requests as his symptoms worsened. Once his sense of taste and smell disappeared, he knew that he had contracted the virus. Though he had been submitting medical requests for four consecutive days, they still went unanswered.
“I stopped one of the cops, and told him hey, I’m putting in another slip today, and this is already the fourth day in a row that I’ve put a slip in, and I still haven’t been seen, and I got COVID, I know I got COVID and and I told him all my symptoms. They basically just laughed and shrugged me off.”
Some correctional officers and jail staff have been apathetic toward the pandemic, and consequently with infection prevention protocol, said Anthony. PPE adherence, such as mask wearing, is not commonplace, and usually depends on the individual correctional officer. Anthony added that correctional officers do not disinfect themselves while moving between COVID-positive and COVID-free pods.
“They’ll walk into a pod that’s in quarantine, do their walk, and then they’ll come next door into our pod, and do their walk. They just come out of a quarantined pod and then come into our COVID-free pod.”
Though Anthony did eventually have his request for medical assistance and testing fulfilled, it was not until some external needling. Upon telling a relative about his symptoms and lack of treatment, the relative filed a complaint to a sergeant at the jail, after which his requests were validated.
Fresno County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer, Tony Botti, has previously gone on record stating that they test the jail population for COVID-19 every week. According to Anthony, however, this is untrue.
As of the date of the interview, Anthony reported, “This is the second time I’ve been tested since getting to this pod, and it’s been a month and a half.”
According to him, the nurses who administer the COVID-19 tests only visit every three weeks to a month. Considering the rate of incoming new books and lack of post-booking quarantines, this testing frequency does not adequately address the chances of infection and virus spread.
If an individual shows COVID-related symptoms, the nurses provide ibuprofen to help with recovery, but any further medical care is only accessible through an official medical request. As stated previously, many of these slips are ignored.
“They mishandled the whole situation.”
Anthony has expressed his fear upon contracting the virus, and deep frustration regarding the jail’s pandemic protocol.
“I was waking up drenched in sweat…” began Anthony. “When I lost my sense of taste and smell I knew I had COVID. I had already been putting in medical slips but they weren’t answering them… That’s when I started feeling helpless. I [didn’t] know if I was gonna make it through this.”
He recounted expressing his fear to his loved ones, and the sense of hopelessness on both sides of the bars. He has also reported lingering chronic conditions as a result of contracting the virus while incarcerated.
“When I work out… I get really winded. Sometimes I feel a sharp pain in my lungs, or I get winded a lot more than I usually did.”
Anthony is currently still incarcerated and serving out his sentence at the Fresno County Jail.