Santa Barbara County Jail | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

Amid the Santa Barbara County Jail’s largest COVID-19 outbreak thus far, several inmates alleged unsafe conditions and forced COVID-19 exposure in the jail. The Public Defender’s Office is requesting that the court order County Sheriff Bill Brown to cease alleged malpractices and provide detailed virus data to the courts.

“My client’s concern is that a court order is a serious matter,” said Michelle Montez, the legal counsel for the Sheriff’s Office, at the Friday hearing. “…Because of the specificity of these, I just think we are at a point where we could have handled them informally at first, and if the jail didn’t follow through, then a court order would be more appropriate.”

More than 80 inmates have tested positive inside the jail since the pandemic began. There were 39 new cases over the week of August 28 and September 4 alone. The county is also teetering on the purple tier of the state’s color-coded COVID-19 monitoring system, the most severe color rating. In order for the state to allow further business reopenings, the county has to get out of the purple zone ― which makes quashing the jail outbreak even more crucial.

There are 11 recommended orders by the Public Defender’s Office that stem from the inmates’ allegations. One plaintiff, Esteban Guerra, claimed in his declaration that he was one of four inmates housed in a three-person cell before two of his cellmates were removed after receiving positive COVID-19 tests.

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He said that he was ordered by an officer to clean up the linens of the two COVID-positive inmates without any personal protective equipment (PPE) despite the officer and a nurse entering the cell in full protective suits.

His public defender, Lori Pedigo, also told Judge Brian Hill that her client was not allowed to shower after coming into contact with the linen and that on a separate occasion he was made to unclog a toilet used by a COVID-19-positive inmate without PPE. In the declaration, Guerra said the feces of one of the positive inmates were clogged for five hours before he and the remaining inmate were given a plunger to unclog the toilet.

Public defender Mindi Boulet said that the declaration was a confirmation of similar circumstances alleged by her clients in the past, too.

“Inmate Guerra had tried to hold onto the linens of the other inmate,” Chief Custody Deputy to the Sheriff’s Office Vincent Wasilewski explained to Hill. “They frequently do that in our facility and try to get as many blankets and sheets as they can…. The deputy who was removing [the other inmate] noticed that he didn’t have his linens and made him go back to his cell to get the linens.”

Wasilewski also said that it was normal protocol for inmates to clean their own areas and unclog the toilet in their own cells and that the inmate was given a plunger within an hour of asking for it. However, he also acknowledged that PPE has not been provided to inmates for those purposes, though he agreed to make that accommodation immediately without any court order.

The crowded cell situation isn’t such an easy fix.

“Several weeks ago, we had an outbreak at the Honor Farm [medium-security facility],” Wasilewski explained to Hill. “We kept 20 there who were positive … so we had 47 inmates left that we had to find room for in the main facility.”

He said that the 47 moved into the main jail were quarantined into smaller cohorts because it was unknown whether or not their tests would return positive or not, forcing them to have to double up on rooms. But public defender Mark Saatjian said that is precisely the reason why the jail needs to lower its population.

“Your Honor, obviously I’m not saying that the sheriff is doing this intentionally or that they’re putting people on the floor because that’s what they want,” Saatjian said. “But this does point to the fact that the numbers need to come down so they have the capacity to put people in safe housing when things like this happen. This is not going to be the last time there’s an outbreak.”

The jail’s population at the time of the hearing was at 640. That’s drastically lower than the 1,000 or so inmates that typically occupied the jail before the pandemic but still higher than the historic low of 540 a few months ago after certain inmates were released for pandemic safety.

At the beginning of the hearing, Hill made it clear that the court would probably not consider a mandate to lower the population, referring to the idea as “draconian.” Rather, the court would consider imposing orders that are more specific to individual allegations.

Other allegations included that inmates with a pending COVID-19 testing status were being transported to court without the knowledge of their public defender or others in the courtroom and that inmates were refused cleaning products. Most of the allegations were either explained or denied by the Sheriff’s Office, and Judge Hill said that unless there is an evidentiary hearing, the court will likely not make any orders based on the declarations alone.

Without having an evidentiary hearing, the declarations and the responses from the Sheriff’s Office are hearsay. Hill said he believed that the Public Defender’s Office could find an agreement without any evidentiary hearing or mandated orders, but if they couldn’t, the court would intervene.

“You can work out some of these details without the court’s intervention,” Hill said. He suggested that both sides consult with their clients and each other in an attempt to find an order they agree upon and meet back Friday, September 18, at 2 p.m. If the details can’t be worked out, he said the Public Defender’s Office should bring a composed order back for the court to consider.

At the Santa Barbara Independent, our staff is working around the clock to cover every aspect of this crisis — sorting truth from rumor.  Our reporters and editors are asking the tough questions of our public health officials and spreading the word about how we can all help one another. The community needs us — now more than ever — and we need you  in order to keep doing the important work we do. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.


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