‘Hellhole’: Santa Clara County suspect who got COVID-19 in jail describes conditions
The Santa Clara County Main Jail, located at 150 W Hedding St. in San Jose is pictured. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Raul Covarrubias has sat in the Santa Clara County Main Jail awaiting trial since June 6, 2019.

While his right to a speedy trial promised a decision by July 3, COVID-19 threw everything out the window. Covarrubias, who had no previous criminal history, tested positive in jail two days later.

In an interview from the jail, the 28-year-old from East San Jose described how he experienced debilitating fatigue, pounding headaches and trouble breathing — all common symptoms of the contagious coronavirus.

He said he moved into a “hellhole” of an infirmary with nine others who were sick, after isolating in a small cell with what looked like rodent feces. He said he slept only feet away from other inmates’ cots, personally sanitized the sticky dorm floors and bathed with a sock and a shared bucket of water.

During a mentally draining month-long stay in the infirmary, Tylenol, cough syrup and cough drops were the only medical respite provided, sometimes not until after midnight when inmates were sleeping, he said.

“I try to keep a clear head with everything and try to stay positive but it was just really hard to deal with,” Covarrubias said, especially when fellow inmates were escorted to the hospital. “We’re being treated as if we got in trouble and we’re not following the rules. We didn’t ask to be here; we are not the ones that got ourselves sick.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Santa Clara County March 17, the only people Covarrubias said he has been in contact with have been fellow inmates, jail personnel and Sheriff’s Office deputies. Law enforcement officials have been known to flout mask mandates, most notably at protests in San Jose late May sparked by the death of George Floyd. Multiple staff members were observed entering the jail recently without face coverings.

Taking responsibility

“Nobody was prepared for this whole pandemic but they were trying to do the bare minimum is what it felt like,” Covarrubias said. “My health was in their hands and it felt like they were not taking full responsibility of that … If the person in charge isn’t pushing the rules, why would anybody else?”

According to the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, those rules eventually changed, including upgrading the bucket to a COVID-19 designated shower and staggered free time outside of cells. Sgt. Michael Low said as of Sept. 11 only one inmate was COVID-19 positive in the jail system. The system has reported 178 cumulative cases in the jails by Sept. 10.

“The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office takes the health and safety of those who are in-custody very seriously,” Low said. “This inmate is currently housed in a single cell in the Main Jail infirmary and is under 24-hour care and supervision by medical staff and Custody Health.”

Covarrubias, who has recovered from the virus, said the damage has been done.

Raul Covarrubias, center, has been in the Santa Clara County main jail since June 2019.

Deputy Public Defender Lara Wallman, Covarrubias’ lawyer, has had four clients test positive — all people of color.

Covarrubias, who has been accused of aiding and abetting an attempted murder, has been unable to participate in his defense because of his illness. Wallman said three requests for bail have been denied even after arguing that Covarrubias is considered high-risk for complications and death due to his high blood pressure, asthma and weight.

Bail was denied because Covarrubias was deemed to be a risk to public safety.

“I consider myself a pessimist when it comes to the legal system, but I have never seen the failure that we’re seeing now,” Wallman said. “It’s already an uphill battle, but when you take away someone’s right to bail, the right to a trial, and then you don’t protect them, you’re really leaving them for dead.”

In the most recent motion denying bail July 23, one doctor argued the infirmary provided a “higher level of medical care” than if Covarrubias were in the community and advised to self-quarantine at home.

Covarrubias said he’s worried about getting sick again from another outbreak, especially given jails aren’t designed for socially distanced interactions.

Surviving inside

Covarrubias says the only thing getting him through each day is talking on the phone with his two children, mother, fiancé, sister and extended family. The calls cost $2.50 for 15 minutes.

His mother, Cynthia Jimenez, said the only reason she knew something was wrong was when those phone calls stopped.

“It was a relief to know that he was alive and OK but it was horrifying to find out what had happened,” Jimenez said. “I am scared every day. It was a low bar to begin with and now that COVID came, I feel like it just really exposed what these detainees are going through on a regular basis.”

Raul Covarrubias, center right, is being drawn on with markers by his family members. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Jimenez.

While outbreaks have made headlines and led to sweeping changes in places such as nursing homes and schools, Jimenez said jails remain unsafe because they exist in the outskirts of people’s minds.

“Nobody wants to see what happens behind prison doors, because they feel that they’re in there for a reason and they don’t mean nothing,” Jimenez said. “They’re still human, they’re still people, they still have rights. I think if people understood that they’re hurting and dying, too, people might see that they’re not just outcasts.”

That’s one reason William Armaline, director of the San Jose State University Human Rights Institute and professor of sociology, said inhumane and unhealthy jail conditions for inmates have continued — people have always been disconnected.

“The basis through which people believe it’s OK to have a prison is because they don’t think they’re going there — that’s for bad people, for broken people,” Armaline said. “We believe that we’re separate from their lives when we aren’t. Now there are real crises on the inside that affect all of us and we literally can’t deal with them because of this.”

He pointed to efforts from public defenders and activist organizations such as Silicon Valley De-Bug that try to break down social and political barriers, to hold public officials accountable for enforcement and change.

Until then, people like Covarrubias sit in jail awaiting the chance to defend themselves. Despite claims of innocence until proven guilty, Armaline argues that no-bail sentencing is pre-trail criminalization, as jobs, property and rights are often lost when the accused stays behind bars.

“To be held in there, you’ve already been punished,” he said. “This is a life-altering experience and you have not been convicted of a crime yet. The only thing would make the experience different is if you’re rich and powerful.”

Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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