By Cres Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau Chief
SACRAMENTO, CA – The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Dept. decision to release several hundred incarcerated from its two jails last week because of the recent COVID-19 outbreak here and around the U.S. was, in effect, too little and too late, according to Decarcerate Sacramento.
The jail critics Tuesday demanded the roughly 3,200 jail population be cut by half, not by a mere five percent, as promised by the sheriff.
And Decarcerate Sacramento wants the “urgent release for those most medically vulnerable, and robust re-entry services that do not involve law enforcement,” according to a press statement.
“They should act swiftly, as if lives depended on it—because they do. Sacramento County and the Board of Supervisors…do not have to wait for their new Public Safety and Justice Executive to be hired to advocate for and facilitate releases and invest urgently in prevention,” said Liz Blum with Decarcerate Sacramento.
Never willing to release incarcerated from the Sacramento County Jails, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Dept. last week admitted in a news conference that the latest COVID-19 outbreak was forcing them to release about 200 people, whether the sheriff likes it or not.
As Omicron cases spike locally, statewide and nationally, the jails said they need the space to quarantine the infected, something they were not willing to do when COVID-19 broke out, despite a spate of legal actions by public defenders and outrage by the justice reform community.
Decarcerate Sacramento and other community social justice groups said they “applaud” the 203 prisoners released, but they charge that it is “insufficient, given that public health experts have recommended 50 percent reductions since March 2020.
“It points to a systemic failure by several county actors,” said Mack Wilson with Decarcerate Sacramento, adding, “The response from Sheriff Jones, county courts, and Correctional Health has been grossly inadequate every step of the way and has led to immeasurable physical and mental harm and preventable deaths.”
Wilson noted that the “District Attorney’s Office and Sacramento Police Department have also played an active role by willingly filling up the jails, prioritizing tough-on-crime politics over public health.”
In 2020 and 2021, the Vanguard was informed by the incarcerated that most jailers and incarcerated were not provided masks—with some of those jailed using pieces of clothing, including socks, as makeshift defenses from the more virulent Delta strain.
This is an ongoing problem pointed out by jail critics.
“In 2020 during another outbreak, over 30 percent of the jail population was released after actions taken by the Public Defender’s Office and persistent public outcry. There was no evidence of impact on crime rates. But now, the jails are dangerously overcrowded, beyond their pre-COVID levels,” said Decarcerate Sacramento.
“We will continue to see outbreaks in the jails and in Sacramento County more broadly until system actors take action guided by public health,” said Christina Bourne, MD, MPH. “At least 50 percent of the jail population should be home with their families.”
Bourne said the most recent sheriff’s data shows nearly 80 percent of Sacramento’s jail population is pretrial.
Decarcerate Sacramento charged Tuesday, “People incarcerated in Sacramento County jails continue to be denied access to soap, toilet paper, and disinfectant. When incarcerated people test positive, they are often put in ‘quarantine,’ with little to no medical attention.
“It is absolutely shameful that the Sheriff’s priority with these releases is the bare minimum, just enough to create space to put sick people into solitary confinement—punishment for getting sick,” said Jael Barnes with Decarcerate Sacramento.
A jailed individual told Decarcerate Sacramento they’ve been waiting on a trial for three years—a not uncommon refrain from the incarcerated in county jail facilities throughout the state as superior courts have partially, and sometimes completely, shut down because of COVID-19.
“There really have been no changes inside here in regards to the pandemic. There has been no urgency on behalf of the sheriffs or courts to get people’s cases settled. And there are still 75-80 people in a dorm, so there is no way to social distance in here, let’s be real about that,” argued the incarcerated.
They added, “I have been in dorms where they have put positive people with the rest of us and what are we supposed to do? It’s a joke and it’s really sad. People in here feel like they have been sentenced to die.”
The jails in Sacramento late last week reported cases had increased more than four times in about a week with about 156 incarcerated cases Thursday between the downtown jail and Rio Consumnes Correctional Center—nearly twice as many downtown than at the Elk Grove facility. The new outbreak is hitting not just incarcerated but also jail workers, the county admitted.