Decarcerate. Since COVID-19 became a national emergency, that call has come from every corner of the country as a public health necessity. Prison activists, defense attorneys, and sheriffs alike have worked to thin jail and prison populations to prevent the spread of the virus.
The reasons for decarceration are numerous, among them:
• Prisons and jails are susceptible to overcrowding, making social distancing guidelines logistically challenging and nearly impossible to follow. California’s county jails are particularly susceptible to such conditions, since reform efforts in the last decade have filled them beyond capacity with people whose sentences previously would have landed them in state prison.
• Incarcerated people often have limited or no access to basic hygiene products; hand sanitizer is banned in New York state prisons.
• Across the U.S., jail populations include a disproportionate number of people with health conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to coronavirus complications.
• Those who fall ill are unlikely to receive quality treatment, whether because it is lacking or because it’s cost-prohibitive.
• Many people who are booked into jail are released within a few days. If the virus is present inside a jail, this short turnaround time could create a rapid cycle of spreading germs from inside the jail to the rest of the community.
• African Americans and Latinxs make up more than two-thirds of California’s jail population but less than half the state population. The health of people in custody and of the communities to which they will return is a significant racial justice issue.
This list only begins to address the distinct hazards of ICE detention.
In Santa Barbara County, we know that at least one county jail employee has tested positive for COVID-19, forcing into quarantine 12 other jail staff members who came into contact with them. The Sheriff’s Office has suspended visitation, and it has reportedly distributed more soap, increased cleaning, and educated those in custody about preventive measures. Sheriff Bill Brown has also released 30 out of an alleged 766 people in custody; the Main Jail has a capacity of 627. Those who have been released were reportedly chosen for their low-level offenses. The sheriff has not publicly commented on whether medical conditions have been or will be taken into account.
Health-care services at the county jail have long been a serious concern. In 2017, Disability Rights California (DRC) sued the county for “inhumane,” “unsanitary” conditions at the jail, its excessive use of solitary confinement, and its overall failure to maintain minimum legal standards of health care. The ACLU Southern California Jails Project — the court-assigned monitor for Santa Barbara County Jail — collected 1,024 complaints between April 2015 and December 2017. The organization’s unreleased preliminary report shows that nearly half the complaints, 456, pertained to health care, sanitation, and hygiene in the jail. The report highlights recurrent overcrowding that left people with no option but to sleep on the floor. Only 14 percent of all complaints during the period were resolved. Moreover, both DRC and the ACLU SoCal Jails Project reported underlying failures in the jail’s internal communications system for reporting medical and other concerns. An ombudsperson with the ACLU Jails Project noted that many grievances transmitted through the established procedures did not reach them until conveyed through an outside party.
The Sheriff’s Office sought to resolve health-care issues by contracting a new provider in April 2017 and establishing a grievance oversight coordinator in February 2018. Since these changes, medical grievances — as reported by the jail’s own coordinator — have decreased. But key concerns remain. The standard jail menu continues to lack essential nutrients, said Suzanne Riordan of jail advocacy group Families ACT! And the Main Jail has operated without National Commission on Correctional Health Care accreditation for more than three years. Just last year, CNN reported on cases of abuse across the nation by Santa Barbara County Jail’s current, for-profit health-care provider, Wellpath.
In Alameda County, Santa Rita Jail has taken preemptive steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. As of Wednesday, eight inmates had been released because of concerns about their age or medical vulnerability, 67 released on their own recognizance, and 247 on shortened sentences, out of a below-capacity jail population of 2,715. In addition, the county’s Superior Court ordered a cite-and-release policy for people caught for low-level offenses, and the Sheriff’s Office committed to booking in only those suspected of committing violent or serious crimes or who are considered immediate threats to public safety. These precautions preceded any reported cases at the jail. Only yesterday, March 26, did it report its first presumptive case, a Wellpath nurse.
Sheriffs have a strong incentive to reduce jail populations at this time, because the health of people in custody directly affects their own. The Alameda County case also shows strong cooperation between the sheriff and the court. So far, this has not happened here. Santa Barbara County Public Defender Tracy Macuga has called for the immediate release of people confined at the county jail in the interest of public health. Her office’s efforts toward this, Macuga said, have been impeded by the court’s near closure.
Moreover, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley, who did not reply to a request for comment for this piece, has resisted the public defender’s call to collaborate on decarceration. But let us not forget that Dudley, like Sheriff Brown, is an elected official answerable to voters. Through the organization Fair and Just Prosecution, more than 30 of Dudley’s peers — elected prosecutors from Hawai‘i to Maine — have risen to their responsibility as public representatives and pushed for decarceral measures to minimize the spread of COVID-19. The disease, they point out, is not only a threat to people in jails but a symptom of the humanitarian crisis that is the U.S. system of criminalization and incarceration.
People in custody at Santa Barbara County Jail are more isolated now than ever. Without visitation, Riordan said, their loved ones may not receive word that they are ailing until it’s too late. The Santa Barbara County Superior Court and the District Attorney’s Office must heed the call of the Public Defender’s Office and Fair and Just Prosecution, among many other groups, immediately. And those they represent should join us in urging them to do so. This is a cry for public health, but it goes beyond that. The COVID-19 crisis highlights the failures of the American carceral system to advance justice and safety for the community as a whole, which includes people confined to our jails. The crisis demands that we scrutinize whether the carceral system produces communities where everyone is healthy, peaceful, and thriving. The health of the most vulnerable, most unfree members of a society is a measure of the health of all of society.
The statement released by Fair and Just Prosecution can be viewed at https://fairandjustprosecution.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Coronavirus-Sign-On-Letter.pdf. Those with loved ones in jail or prison may find Beyond Prisons’ resource guide helpful: beyond-prisons.com/covid19.