Low Vaccine Acceptance, No Masking, Medical Neglect– Staff Behavior During COVID in Santa Clara County Jails

By Aparna Komarla, Angela Khov and Alex Ramirez

With a total incarcerated population of 2,400 people, Santa Clara County’s Main Jail and Elmwood Correctional Complex are among 100 correctional systems nationwide with over 1,000 people in custody. During the pandemic, the deadliness of the virus has been exacerbated by the jails’ population density and the poor implementation of masking, sanitation and social distancing protocols. 

Specifically, in August 2020 and January 2021, the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office reported a massive surge in positive cases– nearly 100-150 cases were active per day across both jail facilities. As of today, 600 total cases have been identified during booking or in custody. An additional 233 correctional officers, or other jail staff, have contracted COVID-19 to date, according to the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley.

Poor jail conditions compounded with negligence by jail staff, have aggravated the impact of COVID-19 on incarcerated people.

Correctional officers and medical staff play an integral role in curtailing the spread of the virus by not only following COVID-19 guidelines, but also enforcing these guidelines and providing incarcerated people with the necessary resources such as cleaning supplies, medical care, masks, etc. to protect themselves. Numerous reports outlined below show that Santa Clara County’s jail staff have failed to meet these expectations. 

In a series of interviews with Vanguard reporter Linh Nguyen, seven incarcerated people at Elmwood Correctional Complex shared their experiences during the initial months of the pandemic.

Tom, a 46 year old who has been incarcerated for over four years tested positive in July 2020. “Everyone in his dorm caught the virus after jail officers placed a positive person in their dorm, showing blatant disregard for the obvious consequences. Once the officers realized their mistake, the person was removed but it was too late as everyone in the dorm had already been exposed,” Nguyen writes. 

“[Jail officials] 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,” another incarcerated person said. 

Regarding medical treatment for positive patients, one resident said, “Jail officers kept the positive patients in the cells and told them to drink water. They didn’t help much. They didn’t give us disinfectants. They just checked our vitals. They didn’t give us medication like Tylenol or headache relief medication. If a person’s vitals indicated deteriorating symptoms, jail officers did not do anything about it. The person was left in the cell.”

Silicon Valley De-Bug, a non-profit organization that advocates for vulnerable populations in the Bay Area, conducted a survey on jail conditions throughout the pandemic. “85% of people surveyed said that jail staff do not consistently wear their masks; 100% of people surveyed said that jail staff are rotating between housing units,” reads the survey results. One respondent estimated that “out of 8-12 officers, about 3 to 4 would wear their masks constantly. The rest would wear them around their neck. They would only put on a mask if there was an incident.”

Another said, “When I tested positive, my experience was very frightening. I did not shower for 4 days. I was not given clean clothes. The same number of days I was in lockdown. For over 96 hours continuously. No cleaning supplies were provided. No medication except Tylenol. Food handed through the door.”

In light of growing community concerns regarding staff behavior, on Nov. 3 the County Executive Dr. Jeff Smith issued two directives for staff in the Probation Department, Department of Corrections, Sheriff’s Office Custody Bureau and Custody Health Services (CHS). The first directive mandated all staff to wear surgical masks, and the second required all staff to submit to mandatory COVID-19 testing every 14-days. 

Dr. Smith also recommended that the aforementioned departments work with CHS to establish an on-site testing program. “CHS is adding up to 10 FTE temporary staff, a combination of registered nurses, licensed vocational nurses, and medical assistants to meet the surveillance testing recommendations,” the directive reads.

While this order was the first of its kind in California’s county jail system and a step in the positive direction, unfortunately it did not impede staff neglect. 

On Dec. 6, photos of an indoor party among correctional officers and deputies were circulated on Facebook. Mercury News broke the story, highlighting that deputies were not wearing masks or practicing social distancing. “Officers were willfully conducting themselves in way that would spread the infection,” SV-Debug said in a statement about the photographs. 

While the impact of this congregation on the spread of COVID-19 in custody is unclear, cases increased from single to double digits during the first two weeks of December. 

The Law Foundation of Silicon Valley (LFSV) published an extensive report on the inhumane jail conditions during the pandemic in March 2021, arguing that Santa Clara County and the Sheriff’s Office have effectively violated incarcerated people’s Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights. 

In an example of medical negligence, LFSV reports, “Pill calls have been described as particularly crowded, with hundreds of individuals ‘nearly touching each other’ while waiting to receive their medication. Staff does not sanitize the cup used to distribute medication between uses. Several individuals have reported that they stopped taking their psychiatric medication to minimize their risk of contracting COVID-19.” 

“Correctional officers do not enforce social distancing and often exacerbate crowding with ineffective program timing. At other times, officers blatantly disregard stated room capacities to the detriment of incarcerated people; Medical professionals do not frequently check on or care for COVID-19 positive people despite significant risk,” LSFV stated in a letter urging the Board of Supervisors (BOS) and Public Health Dept. to take action.

After 11 months of poor conditions and staff neglect, many community members and advocates viewed vaccinations in carceral facilities as a saving grace. However, vaccine acceptance rates among staff members show that the Santa Clara County jail system is far from achieving herd immunity.

As of Feb. 9, 45 percent of custody sworn staff and 51 percent custody civilian staff had been vaccinated. During a Public Safety and Justice Committee meeting on April 6, the Sheriff’s Office announced that 55 percent of all custody staff had been vaccinated– an increase of 9 percent in two months. On May 6, the Sheriff’s Office reported that 58 percent of custody sworn staff and 73 percent of custody civilian staff have been vaccinated. 

These numbers only include staff members who were vaccinated through the Public Safety Clinic organized by the Public Health Dept.– it does not count those who received vaccines through their own providers. 

Nevertheless, the available data shows that the low acceptance rate is consistent with nationwide trends for staff vaccinations in carceral facilities. In California, the CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) manages a system of 35 prisons and a population of 100,000 people. Out of 65,432 staff members across all CDCR institutions, 29,013 have been fully vaccinated and 2,772 have been partially vaccinated— only 48 percent have received at least one dose. In contrast, nearly 70 percent of the incarcerated population has been fully vaccinated. 

In their letter to the BOS, LFSV argues that the low vaccination rate among jail staff is due to choice and not availability as the vaccine has been available for months. 

While reports show that 795 incarcerated people in the Main Jail and Elmwood have been fully vaccinated, it does not reflect the current number of fully vaccinated individuals in custody as the population is in constant flux with releases and transfers. 

Needless to say, the low staff vaccination rate raises concerns that staff infections will continue to put the incarcerated population at risk.

During a Public Safety and Justice Committee on May 6, Susan Ellenberg, a board member of the committee, asked jail representatives if incarcerated people would be able to distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated staff members. Capt. Joseph Nguyen responded stating that vaccination statuses are not disclosed for privacy reasons, and staff are supposed to follow health protocols regardless of their status. Additionally, Ellenberg questioned if the jail would consider re-assigning unvaccinated staff members to duties that have limited contact with incarcerated people, however, there was no response from Capt. Nguyen. 

On a positive note, Capt. Nguyen reported that Custody Bureau staff’s compliance with the mandatory testing order for the latest 2-week period was at 100 percent. 

Effective May 18, the county health officer’s new directives regarding unvaccinated personnel state that “all staff of businesses or government entities must have their personnel immediately test for the virus at the onset of symptoms and if positive, must be reported to the County Public Health Department.” Custody staff and others who come in contact with the incarcerated population would be required to comply with this order. It will possibly help decrease the risk of unvaccinated staff introducing the virus to the population. 

After the most recent outbreak that occurred in January– the second largest during the pandemic– incarcerated people at the Main Jail organized a hunger strike demanding better conditions and for jail staff to follow COVID-19 guidelines. When the strike ended, the jail administration held a meeting promising that these guidelines would be followed.

The declining case numbers in the Santa Clara County community as a whole, coupled with the latest health directives for unvaccinated personnel and the mandatory testing order, suggest that COVID-19’s impact on the incarcerated population may recede in the coming months. 

However, the data available on custody staff vaccinations suggest that staff infections will continue to pose a threat to the health of individuals in custody.


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 www.covidincustody.org for more information.

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