Alameda County's Santa Rita Jail holds roughly 2000 detainees on any given day and is one of the largest jails in the country. Credit: Pete Rosos

A coronavirus outbreak in Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail expanded rapidly last week, threatening the health and safety of the approximately 1,800 inmates and hundreds of staff and contractors who work in the jail. The spike began last Thursday, when the number of known infections among inmates increased from 6 to 46. By Sunday, the number had grown to 101.

“Alameda County had COVID under control for a little bit, but the deaths are just rising and rising now. It shouldn’t be,” jail inmate Eric Wayne told The Oaklandside on Friday. Attorneys who represent detainees in the jail said the numbers are shocking and support criticisms their clients have made about the jail for several years now.

The outbreak erupted behind bars despite an unprecedented reduction in the jail’s population from over 2,500 inmates in March to about 1,800 today. It also occurred despite elaborate efforts by the sheriff to contain the virus within the jail, efforts that have been praised by outside experts and which have been examined by a federal judge.

Michael Brady, a former assistant secretary and auditor for California’s state prison system who is currently a private consultant, toured the jail on May 27 and June 3 to examine its public health measures. His visit was part of monitoring efforts approved by a federal judge who is overseeing a lawsuit about the jail’s treatment of mentally ill prisoners. After both visits, Brady concluded that the sheriff’s office “has a thoughtful, well organized, science driven, Covid-19 multi-disciplinary action plan.” He wrote in his report that he “did not find any systemic problems that are materially undermining the efforts” of the county sheriff to control the spread of the virus.

The source of the past week’s outbreak is something of a mystery. But the sheriff’s office told The Oaklandside that it’s possible the virus spread to a large number of inmates from the kitchen.

Wayne, the Santa Rita inmate, also cited inadequate sanitation in the jail’s kitchen as one possible reason for the outbreak. Contractors and detainees who prepare meals, said Wayne, may be spreading the virus to one another on trays and in food.

“The kitchen workers got this COVID and they provide the food to all the inmates,” said Wayne. “COVID is passed through touching. It can jump onto food items and float in the air. They served inmates contaminated food.”

Brady’s expert reports about jail conditions found some problems in the kitchen that support Wayne’s theory. One problem involved kitchen workers and supervisors not wearing their masks properly and not practicing social distancing.

Inmates have also expressed concern about jail staff not wearing masks and possibly bringing the virus into the jail during their work shifts. Recent testing results compiled by the Santa Rita Jail COVID Tracker, a project run by U.C. Berkeley law student Darby Aono, showed a sudden rise in the number of jail staff and contractors with the virus that preceded the current outbreak by one month. Between June 13 and June 22, jail staff who had tested positive increased from 3 to 35. As of Sunday, 44 jail staffers have been infected by the coronavirus.

Some inmates also believe the virus is spreading in the jail because they lack access to cleaning supplies and protective equipment like face masks, and some detainees may be concealing symptoms and refusing testing because they fear they will be locked in solitary confinement for a quarantine period if they test positive.

Whatever the cause of the current outbreak, inmates are concerned it could spread to the entire jail, resulting in a crisis similar to what San Quentin State Prison experienced in June, when the virus spread from a handful of inmates transferred from Chino State Prison and infected more than 2,000 of San Quentin’s 3,300 prisoners.

Yolanda Huang, an attorney who has filed several lawsuits against the jail in recent years on behalf of inmates, told the Oaklandside that “overall sloppiness and poor sanitation” are likely the cause of the outbreak. According to Huang, these conditions are longstanding. Detainees have complained about the kitchen since at least 2018.

Huang currently represents multiple male and female prisoners in the jail in two separate lawsuits filed in 2018 and 2019. Both lawsuits allege that the sheriff maintains “inhumane” conditions in the jail, and that the kitchens in which inmate workers help prepare food under the supervision of a private contractor, Aramark, are unclean.

In court records, other inmates have described how Covid-19 could have spread on tablets distributed by the sheriff that detainees share throughout the day. Detainees use the tablets to make calls to family members, friends, or attorneys on the outside, and to read the news, play a game, or even watch a movie.

Jason Collins, who was booked into the jail on May 7, said in a deposition that on May 17 he was handed a tablet by a sheriff’s deputy. He and his cellmate began using the tablet but immediately noticed a sheriff’s deputy in a “big yellow suit,” similar to a “hazmat” suit used around hazardous materials, escorting the prisoner who had used the tablet immediately before them out of their section of the jail. They asked deputies about the incident and were told the detainee had tested positive for Covid-19. Collins and his cellmate were moved into a different housing unit coded “yellow” for people with known coronavirus exposure.

Another inmate, Marcus Felder, stated as part of a lawsuit against the sheriff that he has observed deputies entering housing units without face masks. Inmate Robert Redmond stated in mid-June that he has also observed deputies not wearing masks and not enforcing social distancing rules among inmates.

Wayne also noted that the jail population is increasing again just as the pandemic is worsening on the outside, possibly helping to drive the outbreak. From its low point of around 1,700 in early April, the population spiked to 1,900 in early June, due mainly to the arrests of protesters and people who violated the countywide curfew. The jail currently houses about 1,800 people per day.

“My belief is they were trying to contain the virus, but they couldn’t,” said Wayne. “Now, you got a whole bunch of people panicking around here.”

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.