Weeks before the first reported cases of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, correctional healthcare experts warned that all the worst aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system—overcrowded, aging facilities lacking sanitary conditions and where medical care is, at best, sparse; too many older prisoners with underlying illnesses; regular flow of staff, guards, healthcare workers in and out of facilities — would leave detention facilities, and their surrounding communities, vulnerable to outbreaks. Despite those early warnings, even jails and prisons that believed they were well-prepared have seen a rapid spread of the virus. On a daily basis over the next several months, The Appeal will be examining the coronavirus crisis unfolding in U.S. prisons and jails, COVID-19’s impact on surrounding communities and how the virus might reshape our lives. Read updates from Monday and Tuesday.
In response to allegations that they haven’t done enough to protect incarcerated people from the novel coronavirus, corrections officials often list steps they’ve taken to mitigate the risk of infection. Masks—for prisoners and staff—are always on that list.
But not in Sacramento County. According to documents shared with The Appeal by attorneys from the Prison Law Office and Disability Rights California, Sheriff Scott Jones has refused to require the deputies working in his jails to wear masks.
In 2018, Disability Rights California, Prison Law Office and Cooley LLP sued Sacramento County, alleging its jails failed to provide adequate medical and mental health care, discriminated against people with disabilities and placed too many mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement. In January, both sides agreed to a settlement: the county promised to address the issues identified in the lawsuit and allow attorneys and experts to monitor conditions in the county’s two jails.
Since late March, monitoring has included a review of steps taken by the Sheriff’s Department to prevent COVID-19 from entering its jails. In the monitoring process, attorneys and experts said deputies did not wear masks.
A May 27 letter, signed by Prison Law Office staff attorney Margot Mendelson and Disability Rights California’s Aaron Fischer, acknowledges measures taken by the county to respond to COVID-19, but also describes Jones’ position on masks as “indefensible” and contrary to public health standards.
“The Sacramento Sheriff’s Department has taken the position that it will not require custody officers to wear face coverings—an essential, well-accepted practice to limit the risk that staff will unknowingly transmit the virus to incarcerated people,” Mendelson and Fischer wrote.
In an interview with The Appeal, Mendelson described the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department as “an outlier.” Jails in counties throughout California, as well as the state’s prisons, require staff to wear masks. “It’s been well established that jail and prisons have been hotbeds for the spread of COVID-19,” she said. “This is particularly true for jails because of churn.”
A Sacramento Sheriff’s Department spokesperson did not respond to an email from The Appeal seeking comment for this story. Sacramento jails aren’t reporting any active cases of COVID-19, though the Sacramento County saw a spike in diagnoses this week. Experts say staff are often responsible for bringing the virus into congregate living facilities.
California counties are struggling to curb new cases of coronavirus, and Jones’ refusal to require his jail deputies to wear masks puts everyone at risk, Fischer said.
“The jail system and the community are only as strong as the weakest link. Having deputies not wearing masks is the weak link.”
The lack of masks isn’t the only issue identified by Mendelson and Fischerin their May 27 letter.
Currently, anyone booked into a Sacramento jail is quarantined for seven days. During that time, new prisoners are allowed only one initial shower, and cannot make personal phone calls or leave their cell. Incarcerated people who come into contact with someone suspected to have COVID-19 are placed in quarantine for 14 days under the same harsh conditions: no showers, personal phone calls, or out-of-cell time.
The parties met on May 28, but were unable to reach a resolution, Mendelson said. The next step is a mediation session with a judge, scheduled for June 15.
Monday, we wrote about a spike in COVID-19 cases at California’s San Quentin prison, which, only a week ago, had reported no infections. There was also a spike at Corcoran State Prison, which, like San Quentin, also had reported no cases. The new cases arose from expanded testing and the transfer of prisoners to the two facilities to alleviate crowding at the California Institution for Men (CIM), where 12 people have died and there are more than 500 active cases. A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) spokesperson said only one of the new cases at Corcoran came from the transfer. She told The Appeal that people moved from CIM to San Quentin were tested and medically evaluated prior to their transfer.
On Monday, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jason Fagone and Megan Cassidy reported that the tests were taken weeks prior to the transfers and that four of the men displayed symptoms of COVID-19 en route to San Quentin.
A CDCR spokesperson told The Appeal that all of the men were quarantined when they arrived at Corcoran and San Quentin.
According to CDCR’s patient tracker, 2,382 men and women in California prisons currently have COVID 19. There are 16 active cases at San Quentin and 93 at Corcoran. The largest number of active cases is at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, in Blythe (989). Avenal State Prison is second with 639, down from Monday’s 670 cases.
*As jails and prisons expand testing, asymptomatic positive cases are becoming a significant problem. On Monday, Weld County jail, which is about an hour outside of Denver, reported that 23 asymptomatic prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19.
*On Monday, the Boyd County Sheriff’s Department released the name of a man who died in its custody on Sunday. In a press release, the department said 48-year-old Leslie Bryan went into “medical distress” in jail and died later that day in a hospital. A post-mortem test determined that he had COVID-19. Bryan had been at the jail only 12 days and the department said he showed no signs of illness. Last year, The Appeal examined problems in the Kentucky jail, which included drug overdoses, escapes, and a man who died after being placed in a restraint chair and beaten by deputies.
* Twenty-one staff and inmates in the Willacy County jail have tested positive for COVID-19, the Valley Morning Star reports. The south Texas county—population 22,134—is located just north of Brownsville.
* Every single person housed in the Morrow County Jail in Gilead, Ohio, which has been turned into an ICE facility, has tested positive for COVID-19.
Correction: This post has been updated to clarify the number of new cases at Corcoran State Prison resulting from the transfer of prisoners from the California Institution for Men.