Staffing shortages at Santa Clara County’s main jail partly caused by COVID-19 may have created conditions that allowed for an inmate assault on a deputy in early January.
Details about the attack are murky because the Sheriff’s Office will not release records of the assault. However, a sheriff employee did confirm the main jail was significantly short-staffed on the day of the attack, and several workers were absent because they had tested for positive for COVID-19 the day before. According to the employee, the inmate is mentally ill.
The employee, who asked for anonymity to avoid retaliation, said the deputy attacked on Jan. 10 was working alone in a unit that contains the jail’s infirmary. The source said there was only one other officer on the floor. There are normally at least three people assigned to that floor, and the response to the attack was slower than normal because so few people were available, the source said.
“They were running short because of COVID,” the employee said. “When you can’t mandate (staff) to come in because a lot of people are out on COVID leave, you should stay locked down, and they chose to not stay locked down.”
The jail reported 136 active positive COVID cases among workers on the day of the attack. Cases peaked on Jan. 12 at 152 before declining over the next few weeks.
A report last October found the Sheriff’s Office was understaffed by 60 workers and the jail system by 54. The county dismissed the report as outdated because its data came from 2019, prior to the significant reduction in the jail population caused by COVID-19. Sheriff Laurie Smith, the target of investigations and criticism for her management of the jail, has warned county officials that a significant portion of the jail’s population is mentally ill, and her deputies are ill-equipped to treat them.
San José Spotlight requested the incident report and crime report for the assault. Sheriff spokesperson Russell Davis said the office is exempt from providing law enforcement investigatory files. He said the office will not release records that will compromise facility security, jeopardize the safety of correctional staff or endanger the safety and security of inmates. The status of the inmate or the deputy is unknown.
“The Sheriff’s Office provides the necessary staffing levels to ensure safety and security within its correctional facilities for both deputies and inmates to include mandatory overtime when necessary,” Davis told San José Spotlight. “Like many other agencies, the Sheriff’s Office has received its share of COVID infections amongst its staff and has implemented mitigation efforts to continue with essential operations.”
Adding to the fuel
According to two sources at the jail, the attack lasted approximately one to two minutes before other officers arrived, which is an unusually long response time. San José Spotlight is not releasing the name of the deputy involved to protect their safety.
The deputy was working on a team that has a roster of about 70 deputies. On the day of the attack there were approximately 30 people deployed at the main jail, according to sources who work at the facility.
“That’s the lowest I’ve ever heard in my career, including during the pandemic,” Sgt. Sean Allen, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 65, told San José Spotlight. “This was shocking to me.”
Allen, who is running in the election for sheriff, said the mentally ill inmate would normally be kept on the eighth floor of the jail in the psychiatric ward. He was surprised the inmate had not been locked in a cell given the staffing shortage.
“When you go below critical staffing levels, we’re supposed to be locked down,” Allen said. “Because you don’t have enough people there to facilitate a safe environment. So you just do essential stuff like giving medication, giving them food.”
Raj Jayadev, co-founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug, told San José Spotlight the Santa Clara County jail system has consistently failed to meet basic mandates of care for inmates.
“The culture of jail management is often adding fuel to the fire of the already inhumane, volatile situations that are inherent to incarceration,” Jayadev said.