Santa Clara County jails face challenges curbing spread of coronavirus
Santa Clara County jails are taking steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

With physical contact often inevitable inside their walls, county jails have become battlegrounds against the coronavirus pandemic. As the public health crisis continues, Santa Clara County has implemented various measures to prevent local jails from becoming the epicenters of the coronavirus.

Nonetheless, infections are bound to occur, according to Roberto Potter, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida who developed health care plans for correctional facilities.

“The question is: What’s the volume?” Potter said.

Sheriff Laurie Smith announced earlier this month that a third inmate in the county who showed no symptoms tested positive for COVID-19. As of Monday, 207 inmates had been tested for the virus at the Main Jail in San Jose and Elmwood Correctional Complex in Milpitas. Jail officials quarantined the three inmates who tested positive before they entered the general population, according to sheriff’s Deputy Jessica Gabaldon, and just one remains in custody. 112 employees had been tested, with 13 positive results. Ten recovered and are cleared for duty.

Inmates, advocates and defense attorneys have expressed concerns that jail conditions do not meet standards of cleanliness and social distancing. While the county’s Public Health Department gave positive marks for jail officials’ response to the coronavirus in April, it still identified gaps in disease-prevention protocols.

“Jails were not designed with wide open spaces and lots of room,” Santa Clara County Public Defender Molly O’Neal said in a statement. “So it is almost physically impossible without isolating folks to provide meals, pill call, movement, programming … This problem is helped by reducing the population but cannot be completely solved.”

To reduce the risk of infections, the Sheriff’s Office has mandated that staff wear masks. Smith told the Board of Supervisors May 5 that it has also provided masks for all inmates. Jail officials are distributing hygiene kits, and while staff cannot supply hand sanitizer to all inmates due to its alcohol content, Gabaldon said they are providing it before meals for minimum-level male inmates at the Elmwood men’s facility.

According to jail officials, they are also screening every person entering the jails for their temperature. A team with crime analysts is tracing transmission among staff and inmates. New inmates are quarantined for 14 days, and tested for the virus before moving into the general population.

All jail visitations are canceled temporarily. And, to reduce the need for transportation between jails and courts, inmates can meet with defense attorneys and attending court arraignments via video conferencing.

Meanwhile, the Judicial Council headed by the California State Supreme Court chief justice instituted a zero-dollar bail order for most misdemeanor and lower-level felonies in April to reduce jail populations. According to O’Neal, about 300 people in the county were released through the order.

Law enforcement officials, however, opposed the bail measure. Eric Nuñez, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, said that while he understands the importance of reducing jail populations during the pandemic, he worries about criminals who may reoffend when they are released.

“It makes it much harder to keep the community safe,” he said.

San Jose police Chief Eddie Garcia was also concerned with the court’s leniency when two men charged with drug trafficking, gun offenses and links to Mexican drug cartels were released on their own recognizance, according to the Mercury News.

County courts are also releasing nonviolent pretrial detainees and other inmates with expiring jail sentences. O’Neal assured that most of those released early were low-level offenders who were already going to get out of jail in 30 to 90 days, and she noted that crimes in the county have not increased due to the releases.

The inmate population in Santa Clara County has fallen from about 3,200 in mid-March to under 2,200. Meanwhile, the number of inmates at Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail has decreased from almost 2,600 in March to over 1,750, and more than 50 inmates have tested positive for COVID-19.

Across the nation, jails have become Petri dishes of the coronavirus. As of Monday, more than 600 inmates had tested positive in Los Angeles County jails. At Harris County Jail in Texas, over 700 inmates had tested positive by May 13.

Preventing the spread of the virus in jails is especially challenging as there’s a constant churn of inmates who are booked and released from custody. The flow of people can speed up the spread of the virus and endanger the lives of staff and inmates.

“The turnover in jails is incredible,” said Brandon Garrett, a professor at Duke Law School. “People will often spend as little as days in jails. More than 10 million (people) a year cycle through our jails.”

But inmates in Santa Clara County stay on average more than 270 days in county jails. Their average length of stay in the county nearly doubled from 2007 to 2017, in part due to the Public Safety Realignment Act, which redirected sentenced criminals from state prisons to county jails.

Nonetheless, local jail officials still confront formidable challenges trying to prevent the spread of the virus. Inmates live in close quarters. Staff cycle in and out of the jail every day. Officers fingerprint, handcuff and supervise inmates. Practicing social distancing and following sanitation guidelines, especially for inmates with mental health conditions, continues to be an obstacle.

Sheriff Smith told the Board of Supervisors that she expected a significant increase in the number of inmates that will test positive as all newly booked inmates are screened for the virus.

Contact Nicholas Chan at [email protected] or follow @nicholaschanhk on Twitter.

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