Last week, Disability Rights California (DRC), a federally mandated nonprofit organization protecting people with disabilities, sent a letter to the Santa Barbara Office of City Counsel urging swift action to protect Santa Barbara’s inmate population from the spread of COVID-19.
The letter described those inside the county jail as “highly vulnerable to outbreaks of contagious illness” since they are housed in crowded and often unsanitary conditions. Inmates who are elderly or suffer from medical problems are especially in danger. The DRC emphasized that an outbreak of COVID-19 in the jail would threaten the entire community, since staff travel back and forth to their homes each day.
Aaron Fischer, an attorney with DRC, wrote that “People in the jail are understandably afraid that if the virus gets into these crowded jail units, it will spread quickly. And they are also right to fear that the jail’s medical staff and facilities do not have the capacity to treat them if they get sick.”
The letter asks what plan is in place to test and screen inmates for the virus. Also, assuming that the virus might spread among jail employees, the DRC asked how the jail will function with a reduced staff. Last week, several of those working at the jail were required to self-quarantine after coming into contact with another jail employee who had been exposed to the virus.
According to the Sheriff’s Department, around 30 inmates out of a population of 900 have been released so far in a program that gives 30 days’ credit for time served, nine additional days than normally given. More soap is also being distributed to inmates.
Sheriff Bill Brown also said that law enforcement agencies are being encouraged to use other alternatives to arresting suspects. However, the Sheriff’s Office would not comment on whether they were prioritizing particularly vulnerable inmates, such as those in the health wards, for early release.
A number of states and counties are already taking steps to decrease their prison populations as a way of controlling the spread of COVID-19. In Los Angeles County, daily arrests have dropped dramatically, and prosecutors have been advised to utilize pre-trial diversion programs to the greatest extent possible to tamp down the incarcerated population in Los Angeles. Los Angeles County Sheriff has also doubled the bail level necessary to qualify for misdemeanor bookings in their jails from $25,000 to $50,000 and accelerated the release of inmates with 30 days or less remaining in their sentence. The jail population in Los Angeles County has already dropped by over 600 inmates.