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San Francisco Officials Push to Reduce Jail Population to Prevent Coronavirus Outbreak

The public defender and district attorney both directed their staffs to keep individuals who are more vulnerable to the virus out of jail.

The San Francisco Hall of Justice.
(Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

San Francisco Officials Push to Reduce Jail Population to Prevent Coronavirus Outbreak

The public defender and district attorney both directed their staffs to keep individuals who are more vulnerable to the virus out of jail.


The two public officials on opposing ends of San Francisco’s criminal legal system are taking action to prevent the holding of individuals at greater risk of dying from the COVID-19 virus in the county’s jails.

San Francisco Public Defender Manohar Raju issued a statement Tuesday that his office’s attorneys “will begin filing motions to seek the immediate release of all clients being held pre-trial in San Francisco county jails who are at heightened risk for illness from coronavirus.” This includes people over 60 years of age and those with medical conditions like heart and lung disease. Raju called San Francisco’s jails “cramped and unsanitary.”

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin directed his prosecutors not to oppose motions to release pretrial detainees facing misdemeanor charges or drug-related felony charges if the person is deemed to pose no threat to public safety. Boudin also directed his staff to “strongly consider” credit for time served in plea deals so that more people can be released.

As of Tuesday, 14 people in San Francisco had contracted the coronavirus, according to county health officials. The city’s jails, which hold approximately 1,200 people each day, haven’t yet reported any cases of the dangerous virus.

Raju is also seeking earlier release for some who are already sentenced. In a letter sent to San Francisco Sheriff Paul Miyamoto on Tuesday, Raju requested the sheriff immediately assess all sentenced persons in the jails for immediate release on electronic monitoring and work release programs.

In a response to Raju, the sheriff wrote that “those who are under our care receive medical treatment that is among the best in the country.” The sheriff’s office told The Appeal that its jails have access to medical test kits through the Department of Public Health, and dedicated medical isolation units for those who show symptoms.

An enormous number of people are booked into California’s jails each day, making it quite possible the coronavirus will soon appear behind bars where many are forced to live in close proximity with hundreds of strangers, often in unsanitary conditions. 

Across San Francisco Bay, the Santa Rita Jail located in Alameda County, one of the nation’s largest with an average daily population of 2,600, has already been dealing with two influenza incidents this year. In February, three people tested positive for Influenza Type A, a viral infection of the respiratory system that can sometimes require hospitalization.

Sgt. Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office told The Appeal that the incident resulted in a quarantine affecting 70 people. The quarantine was lifted after no others tested positive, but on Monday another detainee was found to have Influenza Type A, and a new quarantine affecting 50 people is in place.

Kelly said the flu outbreak was good preparation in advance of the coronavirus, and that the jail and county medical staff are taking extra steps to screen people booked in the jail.

“We know if we get one COVID case in the jail it probably is going to bring a major disruption to the criminal justice system in Alameda County,” Kelly said. “It will affect the courts, jail, and officers on the street who may not be able to book arrestees into our jail.”

Many people in jail are also at greater risk of dying from the virus. 

“We’re dealing with a very at-risk population with a lot of underlying health problems,” Kelly said. “Some have compromised immune systems, HIV, cancer, and hepatitis. This is like the most at-risk group in society who ends up in jail.”

Santa Rita recently added a nurse in the jail’s public intake area to screen people for symptoms of coronavirus as they arrive. The Sheriff’s office has also reached out to local police asking them to use their discretion and not book people into the jail for misdemeanors, if the person isn’t a threat to public safety.

Other California jails are also bracing themselves for the COVID-19 virus.

In Los Angeles, site of the largest jail system in the nation, the sheriff’s department announced plans to closely monitor and isolate those who show symptoms. Those who test positive will be relocated to the jail’s medical ward. The Los Angeles jails have yet to report any COVID-19 cases. The Los Angeles Department of Public Health will also monitor people after they are released from jail for symptoms, according to a press release from the sheriff.