On Friday evening, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office announced that three inmates and nine custody staff at the Santa Barbara County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing into reality a scenario that civil rights groups and activists have warned could put the lives of inmates and staff at serious risk. When nine staff workers at the jail tested positive last week, testing of all inmates and staff at the jail was ordered, and the nine additional workers reported Friday brings the total number of jail staff testing positive for COVID-19 in the last week to 18.
While the Sheriff’s Office states that only four of those 18 worked directly with inmates, the situation has sparked concern among groups that have long warned that COVID-19 could spread quickly through the facility if it ever reached the inmate population. Now that it has, it will be up to the Sheriff’s Office to ensure that it stays contained to the greatest extent possible.
The Sheriff’s Office has stated that of the three inmates who tested positive for COVID-19, two were being held in the general population, and the third was being held in quarantine after being extradited from a facility in Arizona. The three inmates are currently being held in negative-pressure cells meant to minimize the possibility of further spread. Jail staff says that all inmates who were in close proximity to the two inmates in the general population have been tested, and that no more inmate tests have come back positive so far.
Across the country, jails, prisons, and detention facilities have seen explosions of COVID-19, due to the fact that the cramped and often unsanitary conditions inside these facilities make steps like social distancing all but impossible. Up the road in North County, the federal penitentiary in Lompoc (which is not related to the county jail, and is run exclusively under federal authority) became a chilling example of this phenomenon: Since the beginning of the pandemic, over 1,100 inmates and staff have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least four inmates have died as a result of the disease, leading to a lawsuit by the Southern California ACLU over what they call a “medical and humanitarian” crisis brought about by a culture of neglect and lack of care.
To diminish the possibility of widespread infection of the county jail’s population, over a third of the facility’s inmates were released in accordance with an emergency order in April by the Judicial Council of California that lowered bail to zero for most low-level, nonviolent offenders. Many of those released had yet to stand trial for a crime and were being held due to their inability to afford bail. However, some organizations have called for more measures to prevent the possibility of widespread infection and protect inmates with health conditions, disabilities, and other factors such as old age that make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19. In a letter to the Santa Barbara Office of County Counsel on June 19, the watchdog group Disability Rights California called for further steps to protect the inmate population and release inmates who pose no demonstrable threat to public safety. The letter also states that, of those in the jail deemed highly vulnerable to COVID-19, 76 percent of these high-risk inmates are Black or Latinx. The letter also includes quotes from letters sent to DRC, one stating flatly, “If I contract COVID-19 I’m quite possibly a dead man.”
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