Outside the Santa Rita Alameda County Jail. Credit: Pete Rosos

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When the COVID-19 pandemic was emerging in March, Alameda County’s criminal justice system, including the superior court, district attorney, public defender, and the sheriff’s office, undertook an unprecedented effort to reduce the population at Santa Rita, the county’s main jail in Dublin, with the goal of preventing a massive and uncontrollable outbreak there among detainees and staff.

As a result, the number of people locked up in Santa Rita dropped from approximately 2,600 on March 1 to a low of about 1,700 in late April, and remained at or below 1,800 for several months. With fewer detainees and a capacity of 4,000, Santa Rita, known as one of the nation’s few “mega jails” because of its size, was able to house more people in single cells and operate in a way that reduced the risk of virus transmission.

But over the summer, the jail’s population slowly started growing again, and in July, Santa Rita experienced a major COVID-19 outbreak that infected about 200 detainees and dozens of staff. In August and September, two smaller outbreaks swept through the jail, according to sheriff’s data maintained by Darby Aono, a UC Berkeley Law School student who has tracked COVID-19 cases at the jail.

By October, the virus appeared to have receded, and since then, the jail hasn’t reported more than three detainees testing positive in a single day. 

But with the virus now spreading faster than at any other time during the pandemic, and with the jail’s population once again climbing—there are currently 2,216 detainees at Santa Rita—many are worried the situation there could again worsen. 

Across Alameda County, coronavirus cases are spiking. On Dec. 11, 1,063 people tested positive, more than 10 times the number that tested positive on any single day in the spring, and more than double the highest daily result over the summer.

“This is gonna be a cold winter,” said Eric Wayne, who is currently incarcerated in Santa Rita Jail and spoke this past week to The Oaklandside.

Wayne and other detainees have been critical of the conditions inside the jail, and fear another big outbreak is looming unless the jail’s population is reduced again. 

The sheriff’s office is also disturbed by the situation. “We are concerned about this second wave and surge of COVID,” said Sergeant Ray Kelly. He described jail staff as “tired, fatigued and working hard,” with many staff members having to work overtime shifts. “We hope to keep it under control and we have learned a lot over the past 9 months,” Kelly said.

But it’s unclear if the jail can prevent another outbreak. Despite a recognition by the sheriff and others that having fewer detainees was key to containing the outbreaks earlier this year, the jail population keeps rising.

“Couple hundred more and it’ll be back to where it was before this pandemic began,” said Troy Powell, another detainee. “It could get bad.”

Reducing the jail population is harder than it was before

Sergeant Kelly told The Oaklandside that the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office wants to reduce the number of people held in the jail, but conditions have changed since the spring, and fewer people being arrested qualify for the emergency policies that previously diverted hundreds away from lockup.

“As you know, we did a massive amount of de-incarceration at the start of the pandemic in March,” said Kelly. Those reductions, he said, were achieved through a variety of methods, including sentence modifications, judicial releases, lowered and no-cost bails, and “discretion on the part of the sheriff and other justice partners.”

The superior court’s zero bail policy was enacted in April and had the biggest impact. It ensured that anyone arrested for a misdemeanor or nonviolent felony would be released without having to pay bail. Chad Finke, executive officer for the Alameda County Superior Court, said the policy was extended in June and that local judges continue to use it.

Kelly, however, said fewer people are qualifying for the zero bail program, because many of those being arrested on new charges were previously held at the jail and already granted early release. 

“We are now stuck with people who have run out of their nine lives and committed more violent and serious offenses,” said Kelly.

According to Kelly, zero bail and the other policies that helped cut the jail population earlier this year simply put people back on the streets too soon, leaving many to commit other, sometimes more serious crimes.

“Typically we are able to intercede in people’s lives and hold them for a few days or weeks before they are released. This allows us time to treat their addiction, slow their deterioration and intercede on issues like mental health, alcohol, and drugs,” he said. “This stops them from further crimes.” 

Finke said another reason the jail is becoming more crowded is because of the state prison system, which has experienced massive COVID outbreaks and numerous deaths of incarcerated people.

“The CDCR is not currently accepting the transfer of inmates, so those sentenced individuals awaiting transfer continue to be housed at SRJ,” Finke wrote in an email.

“CDCR is overwhelmed,” said Kelly.

What it’s like inside the jail right now

Troy Powell is one of the people held in Santa Rita Jail who should actually be in state prison. He was serving a prison sentence when he was transferred to Santa Rita Jail for a resentencing hearing in January, but the pandemic broke out. Instead of being moved back to the prison in Vacaville, he’s been kept at Santa Rita.

Powell said the growing jail population is readily apparent to detainees because the number of people assigned to each pod, a group of cells arranged around a central common room, is growing.

“There were a lot of cells that were empty and a lot of people had single cells,” said Powell about the situation back in April and May. “It was like halfway filled up. Now that everybody is looking the other way, they’re filling this place back up.”

“They just brought two new individuals up in here today, and ain’t nobody getting released,” said Wayne, who lives in the same pod as Powell. “They need to reduce the population because it’s increasing dramatically here in Santa Rita Jail.”

Wayne said a common complaint among detainees is that court dates are being pushed into the future, slowing people’s cases down and delaying hearings where they could ask for release or plead to charges that might result in a shorter sentence. He and other detainees want hearings to resume at a normal pace, but with almost all hearings now being done online, the courts are backed up.

Powell and Wayne both say they’ve seen instances of sheriff’s staff not observing safety rules like wearing a mask.

One independent inspector who has toured the jail on unannounced visits wrote in his most recent report that during a September 22 visit, 99.9% of staff were wearing masks, and that only one employee of a jail contractor was spotted wearing a mask below his nose. The expert did note that some detainees weren’t wearing masks while gathering in groups, and that there were some other issues, but that overall the sheriff’s office has done an “excellent job of preventing/mitigating the spread of the Covid-19 virus.”

The inspector warned, however, that even just a few lapses in safety measures “could very well result in an outbreak of the virus within the secure perimeter and result in the serious illness and/or death of staff and inmates.”

Could another COVID outbreak already be underway?

Kara Janssen is a civil rights attorney who is suing the sheriff’s office over its use of isolation cells and allegedly inadequate mental health care provided to detainees. Although the lawsuit was filed two years ago, the judge overseeing the case agreed to let Janssen and her colleagues monitor the jail’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Earlier this month, Janssen’s team wrote in a court brief that they are concerned about the rising number of detainees at Santa Rita, and that one of the best ways to prevent a big outbreak is to let more people go.

“The surge we’re seeing now seems to be worse than the surge we saw before,” Janssen said in a recent interview. “It’s more likely COVID-19 will come into the jail now. Staff are coming in every day, and new individuals are getting booked in the jail every day. They’re now more likely to have COVID based on the spread in the community.”

Janssen said it’s hard for the jail to accurately track COVID because testing is voluntary for detainees and many refuse to be tested for a variety of reasons. Some fear being placed in the isolation cells that the jail has used to separate COVID positive patients from other inmates. Some may also be refusing tests because if one person in a housing unit or pod tests positive, the entire unit is quarantined, which strictly limits the activities inmates can participate in and the time they can spend outside of their cell.

“There’s a fear of the test, and in certain pods or units, there’s an organized effort to say no, we don’t want to take the test,” said Janssen.

Janssen said she thinks it’s time for a renewed push to release people from the jail, and that it can’t just be up to the sheriff—that the county’s district attorney and superior court should make more effort. “There needs to be a concerted effort to review people’s cases and take this seriously. It seems the courts and prosecutors are treating this as though there isn’t an epidemic anymore.”

Darby Aono, the UC Berkeley Law School student who has created a comprehensive tracking system for COVID-19 in Santa Rita Jail, criticized the sheriff’s office for the way it reports on its COVID-19 testing.

“I’m very concerned there’s going to be another outbreak,” said Aono. “My additional fear is we on the outside won’t know it’s happening because of the abysmally low testing rate.”

According to Aono, testing conducted last week only covered 7% of the jail’s population, meaning that numerous individuals with symptoms, and others without symptoms who have refused a test or haven’t been offered one, might also be infected and spreading the virus right now.

Aono said if the jail doesn’t release more people to reduce crowding, then the sheriff should dramatically increase the number of detainees who are being tested to provide a more accurate picture of how far the virus has spread. Aono also pointed to a recent study by Stanford and Yale University researchers that showed that reducing the number of people held in a jail, along with single cells for inmates, and testing asymptomatic people, are the most effective measures to prevent COVID outbreaks in jails.

As of today, the sheriff’s office says there is one detainee who has tested positive for COVID-19. But there are 16 others who are in the jail’s “red” patient classification, meaning they’re showing symptoms of COVID-19 and either haven’t been tested, or their test results haven’t come back yet.

One thing that could prevent a deadly outbreak in the jail is the vaccine. Alameda County is receiving over 12,000 doses right now and beginning phase one of its vaccination program, which focuses on frontline health care workers, and residents and staff at long term care facilities. 

Jails and prisons will receive vaccines in phase two, but it’s unclear when there will be enough vaccine to move to this phase.

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Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham worked with The Appeal, where he was an investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian, and was an enterprise reporter for the East Bay Express. BondGraham's work has also appeared with KQED, ProPublica and other leading national and local outlets. 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.