By Ned Meiners
Jannat Alam, a former intern for the Covid In-Custody Project, contributed to this story
FRESNO COUNTY– In February of 2021, the Fresno County Jail made national headlines. With 3,985 total COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, the New York Times found that the jail had one of the highest infection numbers of any correctional facility in the nation.
The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the facility, has not been forthright on conditions in custody. Infection numbers are rarely reported, and official accounts of the measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the facility are vague at best. However, for those within the facility the mishandling of the pandemic in the jail is all too clear.
In an interview, Adam*, who has been incarcerated at the jail since August 2019, talked about the conditions and procedures in place since the start of the pandemic.
The Fresno County Jail is a large multi-building facility comprising the Main Jail and two additional buildings, the North and South Annexes. When at full capacity, 3,814 people are held throughout the facility.
The cells are ‘dormitory-style,’ with three people to a cell and three bunk beds, around two feet apart from each other. The cells are then grouped together into 72-man pods, six pods per floor. These pods are the units in which individuals are quarantined, should a COVID-19 case be detected.
Adam resides in the North Annex of the jail, which has five floors.
Fresno County Jail has experienced multiple outbreaks over the course of the pandemic, and to date Adam has been quarantined five separate times.
The June Outbreak
The first reported outbreak began in June 2020. On June 10, twenty-five people were tested for COVID-19 in preparation for a transfer to Wasco State Prison, a CDCR intake facility, in Kern County, some 95 miles away. They all received negative results.
A week later, they were transferred and tested upon their arrival at Wasco. When the results came back on June 19, thirteen of them had tested positive. All of them had resided in the North Annex at Fresno County Jail, which was put under immediate quarantine.
In a statement published June 20, Tony Botti, the Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer, declared “Cases inside the jail [prior to the outbreak] have been minimal.” However, according to Adam, cases were prevalent in the jail before the Wasco transfer occurred. He was first put under quarantine on June 6, nearly two weeks before the transfer occurred. The situation he describes was chaotic and haphazard.
“They fused a bunch of pods together. It was happening; People were getting sick. And they moved a bunch of people together.” Adam recalled. “They moved about 15 guys into a pod where people weren’t sick. And the entire pod and the pod next door got sick.”
For the next 39 days, the duration of the quarantine, Adam would not leave his pod.
On the day the quarantine was set, for unknown reasons Adam was moved from the fifth floor to a pod on the second. There were 20 new books who had only recently arrived in the pod. Jails have been hit very hard by COVID-19 because, unlike prisons which may have a fairly static population, each day new arrestees are booked into them. This supplies a constant flow of new individuals entering and leaving the facility, which Adam described as a “revolving door.”
Everyone in the pod was tested on the day quarantine was set, but had to wait several days for the results. When Adam received his results three days later, he had tested positive, along with many of the new arrivals.
In Fresno County Jail, pods are given colored tags to correspond to their COVID-19 risk. If there has been exposure to a confirmed case, the pod is put on temporary quarantine and given an orange tag. If testing reveals active COVID cases in the pod, it is given a red tag which means a month to six weeks of quarantine where no resident may leave the confines of their pod.
Adam’s pod was immediately tagged red. According to him, “My entire pod had it on the first quarantine…They left everyone there because they came and swabbed us all and we all tested positive.”
Alarmingly, the few residents of the pod who hadn’t tested positive were moved to an entirely different pod, without any intervening quarantine. “There were six guys that were in here with us that didn’t test positive and then they sent them to another pod from here,” explained Adam. “They weren’t by themselves, they sent them to another pod with guys that were negative. If they were carrying it or gone positive the next day everyone in there would have got it.”
When asked about his case of COVID-19, Adam responded, “it’s pretty bad, but it’s bearable.” Others in his pod were not so lucky during the first quarantine. “Two guys in here had to go out on a stretcher,” he recalled.
There are two nurses per pod who administer temperature checks in the morning and evening, but further care is non-existent. According to Adam, “There’s really no treatment. They don’t give us medicine, or fluids, things like that… There’s really no treatment administered.”
Life Under Quarantine
When a pod is tagged and quarantined, residents are not allowed to leave it at all. Access to amenities located within the pod, like television, are allowed, but they may not use facilities like the yard, and must take their meals in the pod. Access to niceties like haircuts and fingernail clippers, which are accessible at the canteen, cease entirely.
The quality of life for those under quarantine suffers immeasurably because of this. There are three ways to access food while incarcerated: the food the jail serves, purchase food at the canteen, and packages from outside. During the first two quarantines, access to the canteen and package delivery ceased entirely, and residents of Adam’s pod subsisted solely off the jail food for nearly three months.
When asked about the food Adam’s wife described it as, “like something you would feed a seven-year-old.”
While limiting access to public spaces makes sense for quarantine purposes, Adam describes it is nearly impossible to maintain social distance within the pod. The residents must line up everyday to receive meals and medication. According to Adam, at one point they were sharing four showers and three toilets for his pod of 72 men.
Any programs that were available to people while in custody at the jail halted immediately at the beginning of quarantine in June 2020 and many have never returned, such as religious services or substance abuse counseling. While some counties, like San Francisco and Tulare, provided their jails with virtual meetings, Adam claims no one incarcerated at Fresno County Jail was given this option.
For individuals who test positive, the circumstances are even more dire; they are sent to medical isolation, or a “lockdown cell.” According to Adam, this resembles solitary confinement. They are not allowed to move outside their quarters for 14 days, and the only outside contact that is allowed is one phone call every other day.
While no incarcerated person may move between pods during quarantine, the correctional officers come and go as they please. Adam referred to these guards as “rovers,” correctional officers who didn’t seem to be assigned to one particular pod, but often worked in multiple areas of the jail.
Guards were required to wear PPE including masks and special smocks, and initially efforts were made to follow CDC disinfection guidelines. However, over the quarantine Adam noticed basic precautions ceased to be followed. He does not cite any malicious intent upon the staff and instead believes they broke protocol purely a result of negligence. They experienced COVID safety fatigue.
According to Adam’s wife, food staff will visit quarantine pods and then go directly into non-quarantined pods, with little to no regular disinfection or change of PPE. When asked why they might engage in such risky behavior, she responded, “Laziness. Sheer, sheer neglect.”
Nurses and correctional officers offer temperature checks twice daily, but they are not mandatory and many people refuse it. According to Adam, “If somebody does have a temperature and it’s 100 degrees or more, they are taking them to isolation, and then our 17 days [of quarantine] start over from that day.”
“Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t”
There are very serious legal ramifications for the quarantined. Court procedures are halted and continued to a later date, and access to attorneys is limited. For those awaiting court dates, this can unnecessarily add months on to their time in jail.
“You go over the speedy trial 90-day deadline, I saw that happen three times to one guy. Dropped him and refiled and added charges,” explained Adam. “They changed all the charges on three dudes.”
In response, the residents of Adam’s pod have developed a novel solution: refusal of testing. He explained, “To try and prevent [delays] and get the most we can out of this court process everyone just refuses, it’s a pod policy across the board for this pod.”
Although it may seem like a risk to refuse testing for COVID-19, from the perspective of Adam and the rest of his pod, it is better than the alternative. “What happens is then we go on quarantine for an additional two weeks for every new guy that gets sick,” he stated. “The court cases are not able to go to court and these DAs are stacking [charges], dropping charges, adding additional charges, they are sitting there honing their baseball bat on us. Everybody’s like screw that.”
Additionally, the residents of Adam’s pod felt abandoned by their own attorneys. “In the meantime, our lawyers are like, no offense with the public defenders, but they’re like, oh cool, down time.”
Prior to mass refusal of testing, incarcerated people had devised ways to avoid quarantine by attempting to mask symptoms when temperature checks occurred. For example, certain symptoms such as fever or high temperatures were masked by dunking a person’s head in cold water. Although the jail refuses “temperature masking medication,” such as ibuprofen, while in quarantine, many still have it on them, as it is available at the canteen.
The only time the residents of Adam’s pod accept temperature checks is when it is in order to get out of quarantine. “We have to give them three solid days of no temperatures, to come off on the lockdown,” he explained. “We make it mandatory the last five days that we all get up, every single person, and give them their days that they need for temperature checks.”
The price for missing one of these temperature checks is high. According to Adam, if a member of a pod doesn’t give a temperature check that is needed to get off quarantine, they will be beat up.
Adam was aware that this system may seem risky during a pandemic, but their pod had put rules in place to address medical problems that were deemed serious. “We have a little policy, if you’re having trouble breathing, cool we’ll notify [medical], there’s no way around that.”
Ultimately, those incarcerated have been put in an untenable position and forced to choose between two options: more jail time, or exposure to COVID-19. Adam put it succinctly, “It’s kind of jacked up in a way, but it’s like you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
The Pandemic Continues
In spite of quarantines, COVID-19 continued to spread in the jail over the summer. On July 17, 2020 Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims announced 764 individuals at the jail, including 40 correctional officers, had tested positive. This was a third of the overall population of the facility.
Efforts were made to reduce the population in the jail by instituting a zero-bail policy, in which individuals charged with non-violent offenses would be released on their own recognizance prior to their court dates. Adam remained skeptical that it had any impact on the population of the jail. “There’s no way the numbers are still accurate,” he said. “If they’re saying they’ve released 600 people, which is the last thing I’ve heard on TV, we did not see it one bit.”
In Adam’s opinion any reduction in the population of his pod was due to quarantining. He maintained, “At the lowest there were like 58 of us in a 72-man pod…the only reason that was the case is because we were on quarantine. Once your pod is on quarantine…they’re not adding people. But as soon as you come off quarantine bam, bam, bam they fill up all the beds.”
To date, Adam’s pod has been quarantined five times including the 39-day quarantine in June and July and 40 days that stretched across September and October. Currently if a pod is orange-tagged they are given a 17-day quarantine. He came off the most recent one on May 5.
In the Fall, Adam saw a press statement by Mims stating the total number of active in the cases was three. Adam disagrees. By his estimation it was hundreds at the time. He personally knew of several pods still in quarantine.
“The only way a 72-man pod gets placed on quarantine is if there is active exposure to the coronavirus,” he stated. To have several pods on quarantine yet only three active cases didn’t add up.
In spite of being over a year into the pandemic at this point, the jail has developed no further procedures other than the ad hoc measures it adopted in June.
To date, there is no individual quarantine period for newly booked individuals. They are tested at intake, but housed in the pods immediately after, and do not receive their test results for three days to a week. This means there is a constant threat of exposure in the pods.
“They are testing them in booking when they come up and then they are sending them up to the pods,” claimed Adam. “So, when their test comes back positive two days later, we get slammed on the quarantine.”
Adam described how during a quarantine in December one of the other residents in his pod received notification that he had tested positive, and that the same day two new books joined their pod. To Adam’s knowledge, the new books had not tested positive for COVID-19 before they arrived.
“They still put them in here, it made no sense,” Adam said. “We saw it happen, because we heard them call the guy out and then 30 minutes later they stuffed him back in here, and then two more guys in here, and then twenty minutes later they put the Orange quarantine tag on our pod.”
The resulting quarantine from the incident lasted 17 days.
Currently vaccinations are taking place at Fresno County Jail. Adam estimates around 75 percent of people incarcerated there are receiving the vaccine, although many refuse. While much of California is reopening, for Adam and others in his pod the pandemic continues.
“We just got off our fifth quarantine three weeks ago. The pod beside me is still on quarantine and two other pods got off last week.” He explained. “We’re still in the thick of it. It’s slowing down, but it’s still here.”
* Name changed to protect identity