Santa Barbara County public defender Tracy Macuga | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

More than 100 people being held at the Santa Barbara County Jail were infected during a new COVID-19 outbreak that may be partly responsible for an incident — which some call a riot, others an altercation — that broke out on December 29.

During the pandemic, the jail population had dropped from 1,100 to 550 as low-level misdemeanor offenders were released on zero bail. By Monday, however, that number had crept up to 730 inmates. Among them was one individual in the basement dorm who tested positive on December 8. Subsequent testing found four more cases among the 51 people in the dormitory. That number grew to 119 throughout the jail by December 29, many of them at the “honor farm” where two inmates started a fight. The dorm was put into lockdown, and as two deputies closed a gate, they had to use pepper spray to make another pair of inmates disperse.

La Mer Kyle-Griffiths | Credit: Courtesy

To deal with the new outbreak, Custody Chief Vincent Wasilewski has segregated the jail into areas of infection, potential infection, and non-infection, and he’s attempted to put people in smaller groups to limit spread. The jail was built in 1971 to hold 640 inmates, however, and it’s a new policy at the courts regarding zero bail that has allowed the population to rise, according to Public Defender Tracy Macuga.

Early in the pandemic, the legal system had agreed to release people arrested for minor, non-violent, misdemeanor offenses on zero bail, or on their own recognizance, with a promise to return to court for hearings. However, a Santa Maria court clarified in November that zero bail did not apply to people arrested on warrants, including warrants for failing to appear in court on the minor misdemeanors. The intent was to ensure defendants with multiple cases would make it to court and resolve their cases, Wasilewski said, acknowledging that many were minor cases but sufficient in number to swamp the courts.

A missed court date wasn’t necessarily a willful snub to the court, insisted La Mer Kyle-Griffiths, who joined Macuga’s team recently as a specialist in holistic defense, which looks at a client’s life circumstances in considering alternatives to incarceration. Some people, such as the unhoused or people with disabilities or mental illness, might lose the court date and not have access to their attorney, the court, or a computer to get information, she explained. And low-level offenses that land someone in jail on a warrant could be something like driving without a license or not making it to a probation meeting.

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Added space should come at the 376-bed Northern Branch Jail near Santa Maria, where a ribbon-cutting ceremony took place in November. The new jail is still in the last stages of completion but should get its final permit for occupancy on January 10, Wasilewski said.

At the main jail, staff from the state and county public health departments augmented the jail’s medical contractor in order to test all the inmates and staff daily, he said. To encourage inmates to get fully vaccinated, jail officials began offering $10-$20 in commissary benefits, funded by the American Rescue Plan Act. In the space of two days, 148 were vaccinated.

However, not all the Sheriff’s deputies who interact with inmates are vaccinated. Of the 250 custody deputies, more than half — 141 — are unvaccinated but have agreed to be regularly tested. Of the Sheriff’s 292 remaining employees, 122 have declined both vaccination and testing. The majority of them are patrol deputies who arrest and transport people to the jail.

Vincent Wasilewski | Credit: Courtesy

“An unvaccinated patrol deputy, who takes information and goes through the booking process, sits with a person for two hours — that’s a vector!” Public Defender Tracy Macuga exclaimed. “Up and down the state right now, most jails are not experiencing what ours is experiencing.” Bad ventilation in the old jail is part of the problem, Macuga said, and other people recently reported filthy conditions in the jail’s holding tank, a cell in which 20-30 newly incarcerated inmates are held until jail space is found.

While people on the outside can quarantine, people on the inside cannot, including those awaiting trial, Macuga pointed out. She herself has had to quarantine at home with the virus, despite being fully vaccinated.

The rapid rise in cases at the jail — between December 8 and January 4, the total number of infections rose from five to 169 — seems to point to the Omicron variant, which is two to three times more infectious than Delta. But Wasilewski said early sequencing performed from jail samples turned up the Delta variant. The second set of tests has yet to be returned.

The jail crowding may get worse, however. The courts stopped scheduling new jury trials last week, which will delay inmates’ progress through the system once again.

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