An inmate is sick in the Santa Barbara Main Jail, seen here during a 2018 tour.

On Friday evening, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department announced that a 40-year-old inmate at the Santa Barbara County Main Jail has tested positive for COVID-19, exacerbating concerns about the potential for an outbreak in the facility. The Sheriff’s Office conducted an investigation to track potential cases of exposure to the inmate, explained a press release, and the results were sent to the Public Health Department for “evaluation and follow up.” 

The inmate, who does not have any underlying health issues, is being held in one of the jail’s negative pressure cells, meant to minimize the possibility of cross-contamination. He had been arrested by the Santa Maria Police Department on charges of burglary and stalking, and was booked in the jail on April 1. 

Under new cautionary procedures at the jail, the inmate was held for 14 days in a reception housing area separate from the jail’s main population. During a medical examination conducted on April 14 by Wellpath, the jail’s health services contractor, the inmate was found to have a fever, and was placed in a negative pressure room and tested for COVID-19. The Sheriff’s Department learned that the inmate tested positive Thursday night. 

Since the governor’s state of emergency declaration went into effect on March 4, the Sheriff’s Department has taken steps to reduce the main jail’s inmate population, decreasing dramatically from 906 to 582. A number of the most recent releases were due to an emergency order by the Judicial Council of California, which lowered bail to $0 for most low-level offenders. The statewide order aims to decrease inmate populations, which are especially vulnerable to outbreaks of COVID-19. The order does not apply to crimes such as DUI, domestic abuse, or sex crimes. 

Many held in the Santa Barbara Main Jail are simply in pre-trial detention, so they’ve yet to be convicted or even stand trial; most of those simply cannot afford bail. Public Defender Tracy Macuga and other officials have urged the jail to release non-violent, low-level offenders to the maximum degree compatible with public safety in order to decrease overcrowding, which could fuel an outbreak. Several staff members at the jail have already tested positive for COVID-19, including a health care contractor, a custody deputy, and a civilian employee. 

Since the pandemic began, inmate advocates have expressed concern about the jail’s potential for being a hotspot. “People in the jail are understandably afraid that if the virus gets into these crowded jail units, it will spread quickly,” said Aaron Fischer, an attorney for the watchdog organization Disability Rights California. “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 substantial decrease in population size — a population drop of 324 inmates — will almost certainly mean a lower chance of mass-exposure inside the jail. 


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