Santa Barbara County Jail | Credit: Paul Wellman File

As of Monday, around 40 inmates have been released from the Santa Barbara County main jail over the last several days as part of an effort to lower the inmate population and decrease the potentially disastrous risks that would accompany an outbreak of COVID-19 in the cramped facility. 

The release is the result of an emergency order by the Judicial Council of California meant to decrease the population of incarcerated individuals throughout the state, as civil rights groups and public health officials across the country urgently highlighted the devastating impact the spread of COVID-19 inside prisons and jails could have, not only on the vulnerable inmates and staff, but also on public health. 

The order decreases bail to zero for most low-level misdemeanors and felonies, but does not apply to those charged with crimes such as domestic abuse, DUI offenses, or sex crimes. 

For weeks, officials such as Public Defender Tracy Macuga and civil rights organizations such as Disability Rights California have been pleading with the Sheriff’s Office to decrease the county jail population, long plagued by a record of chronic overcrowding and lackluster sanitation. The emergency order, issued by the Judicial Council of California on April 6, will stay in place 90 days after Governor Newsom lifts California’s state of emergency, or if the council repeals the order. 

Sheriff Bill Brown said he expects more inmates will be released in the coming days, and though the staff is working to make the process as smooth as possible, some points of concern remain: Inmates being released are not being tested for the virus. “Only those displaying symptoms of the disease are considered for testing. We currently do not have any inmates that are suspected of being COVID-19 positive,” said Vincent Wasilewski, chief custody deputy at the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. 

Questions also linger about the adequacy of services meant to ensure stability for inmates upon release, especially those without sources of income or places to live. Supervisor Gregg Hart said that he is “in communication with our Department of Behavioral Wellness, Housing & Community Development Division, and other county agencies to ensure that resources are available to support re-entering community members and keep them healthy during this time.” 

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, prisons throughout the country have become hot spots for the virus. In New York City, the notorious Rikers Island facility has become the “epicenter of the epicenter,” according to the president of the N.Y.C. correction officers’ union, where hundreds of inmates and staff have tested positive and many are being held in pre-trial detention. The trend also applies in Santa Barbara County: As previously reported by the Independent, COVID-19 at the federal penitentiary in Lompoc accounts for around 23 percent of all cases in Santa Barbara County. 

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