This report is written by the Covid In-Custody Project which partners with the Davis Vanguard to report on the pandemic in California’s county jails and Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). Visit our website to view and download our data on cases, testing, releases and vaccinations for incarcerated people and staff.
By Yu Na Choi
The Yolo County Sheriff’s Office (YCSO) is one of the few jail authorities in California that autonomously report COVID-19 data onto its website. Though the data provides policymakers and the public a basic understanding of the spread of COVID-19 among the roughly 250 people incarcerated in the county’s Monroe Detention Facility, it is not sufficient to inform public health decisions for COVID-19 mitigation.
Comprehensive and accurate data collection and transparency on COVID-19 in correctional facilities is necessary to hold the county officials accountable for failing to protect the health and human rights of incarcerated people. These rights are supported by the US Supreme Court and international law.
Issues with publicly available data
Since March 2020, the YCSO has been updating their website on a weekly or monthly basis with the number of people in custody, active cases, tests administered, cases in medical isolation, deaths, and cases released while active. The first confirmed positive case in custody was reported on September 8, 2021.
Recently, however, the Sheriff’s Office has stopped reporting the number of cases in medical isolation and the jail population size, and has generally become more irregular and inconsistent in their updates. Without data on the number of people in custody, it is impossible to determine the infection rate of the jail, which is critical to measuring the severity of an outbreak. The Sheriff’s Office also does not make any data on positive cases among staff members publicly available on its website.
Since the California Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) launched an effort to centralize COVID-19 data collection for county jails in July 2020, the YCSO has been voluntarily sharing weekly data on COVID-19 in the jail population but nothing on staff. They also share the number of resolved cases and hospitalizations among incarcerated people with the BSCC – data they otherwise do not make available on the county website.
While the BSCC’s effort is a notable step forward in improving COVID-19 data transparency, there are multiple issues with their dataset that undermine its value. For example, the dataset is incomplete as some counties, like Sacramento, have refused to participate. The data also masks the true extent of viral spread in a correctional facility as it does not include the total positive cases and reports “<11” if there are fewer than 10 active cases in custody in a given week (1). The Covid In-Custody Project has also noted discrepancies between the data Sheriff’s Offices have either reported to the media or provided in response to Public Records Act requests and the data reported to BSCC. These data quality issues render the BSCC data insufficient and unreliable.
The irregularities in the data the Sheriff’s Office posts on the Yolo County website, unreliability of the BSCC data, and reluctance to share data on COVID-19 among staff, make it impossible to utilize the current publicly available data for public health decision-making. Table 1 shows how even with the two sources combined, there were data gaps as large as 4 weeks. It also depicts the inconsistencies in the categories of data reported between the two sources.
Currently, the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office does not make data on their compliance with local or state health orders available to the general public. Upon recognizing jails as high-risk settings, in July 2021, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) mandated that correctional staff members either get vaccinated or undergo surveillance testing every week. The CDPH also mandated vaccines for medical workers and other staff who work in medical settings of jails, with no testing alternative. But it is impossible to know whether the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office is implementing these orders, as periodic data on testing, positive cases and vaccinations for jail staff is not available. The County has not responded to our public records requests for this information for over three months.
On September 8, 2021, Yolo County reported to the BSCC that staff members have been participating in weekly testing since August 2021, and that no positive cases were identified. No such information was provided after September of last year. The Human Resources department reported that 73% of the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office was fully vaccinated as of November 2021. Barring these two instances, there have been no other public disclosures of the testing or vaccinations among the Sheriff’s employees.
In comparison, other counties in California, like Alameda County, are more transparent about testing, cases and vaccinations among correctional staff members. Representatives of the Sheriff’s Office also provide periodic data on their compliance with the July 2021 health order upon request.
The importance of improved data reporting
An incarcerated person’s right to healthcare is supported both by US Supreme Court rulings and by international law. In Estelle v. Gamble (1976), the Supreme Court ruled that the deprivation of adequate medical care from incarcerated individuals constitutes a violation of the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment (2). The duty of the state to protect the health of those who are deprived of their liberty is reinforced in Articles 6, 7, and 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with inadequate healthcare constituting “inhuman and degrading treatment” of such populations (3).
Data reporting allows county officials to be held responsible for implementing measures necessary to protect the incarcerated people’s fundamental right to health (4). Accurate and comprehensive data is also essential to crafting a strong public health response to the spread of COVID-19.
The shorter sentences in county jails, compared to prisons, make adequate data reporting by sheriffs’ offices even more important. County jails generally accommodate two distinct populations: those at pre-trial stage, and those who are serving shorter sentences than those sent to prisons, the sentence being generally less than one year. The higher frequency of interaction with those outside the jail facility implies higher susceptibility to contracting and spreading the virus beyond the jail venue, which makes the proper reporting of distancing and testing measures even more important.
Finally, establishing an accountability mechanism is significant in preventing the aggravation of pre-existing and systemic health and social inequities. The Prison Policy Initiative calculates the ratio of overrepresentation of certain ethnicities in incarceration, and for Yolo county has delineated a ratio of 5.87 for Blacks and 1.28 for Latinos, as opposed to a ratio of 0.81 for Whites. The overrepresentation of certain ethnicities and of those of less socio-economic wealth makes the protection of the right to health in jails a necessary measure of social equity. From such a perspective, the data sourced through ACSO officials on the breakdown of vaccines administered in the Santa Rita Jail by age, ethnicity, and gender, carries greater societal significance.
Policymaking is inevitably a political process, and a major factor behind the data gap on correctional facilities may be the lack of public interest in and support for investing limited resources for the rights of the incarcerated. Nonetheless, the incarcerated person’s right to healthcare is protected on both the national and international level, and the CDPH’s public health orders depict how the vaccination and testing of all exposed peoples in correctional facilities constitute a critical part of a strong public health response. Given its role as an accountability mechanism for such health measures, county jails including Yolo County must improve the regularity and quality of its data reporting.
- This is a limitation from the perspective of data collection and public health decision-making. Accurate data reporting at lower number ranges inevitably conflicts with necessary measures to protect the privacy of incarcerated people.
- In Estelle v. Gamble (1976), the Supreme Court ruled that the deprivation of adequate medical care from incarcerated individuals constitutes a violation of the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. While the question of what constitutes “substantial risk of serious harm” that mandates such a responsibility remains disputed, a minimal consensus can be made that incarcerated individuals are legally conferred the right to healthcare standards no less than that ensured to those outside correctional facilities.
- Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) reinforce the right not to be subjected to “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment”, while Article 10(1) ensures that all persons “deprived of their liberty” be “treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” Therefore, measures such as ensuring physical distance between the jail population, testing, and the investigation of in-custody deaths are necessary to provide the level of health protection stipulated by international law. For a more detailed analysis of the international legal framework with respect to the health of incarcerated populations, see “The Right to Health Care in Prison during the COVID-19 Pandemic”, Open Society Justice Initiative (July 2020). Available at: https://www.justiceinitiative.org/publications/the-right-to-health-care-in-prison-during-the-covid-19-pandemic.
- The general importance of data in public health response is depicted by how President Biden, on January 21, 2021, issued an executive order emphasizing the need to review the effectiveness of the collection of morbidity and mortality data on the federal, state, and local level.