The current COVID-19 outbreak at Santa Barbara’s Main Jail has reached more than a quarter of its population in just over a month, prompting a response from the lawyers who represented the inmates of the jail in a previous class-action lawsuit regarding the conditions of the facility in 2020.
Since the first group of five inmates tested positive on December 8, there have been 208 cases in the jail, which houses just over 730 people. The outbreak sent custody staff and the Sheriff’s Office scrambling to find those infected and quarantine them to prevent further spread.
Attorney Aaron Fischer represented Santa Barbara’s incarcerated population in Murray v. County of Santa Barbara, which was spurred by complaints from December 2017 and addressed the conditions of the jail in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic. Fischer’s office reached a settlement with the county, which included plans to reduce the population in the jail and implement consistent COVID testing, among other measures stipulated in the June 2021 Remedial Plan.
On January 6, Fischer’s office sent another letter to the Santa Barbara Office of County Counsel, pointing out key issues that have contributed to the outbreak and warning potential legal action if the issues are not addressed. “To be clear, without a full, all-hands-on-deck response,” the letter states, “the situation stands to get worse. “
Early on in the pandemic, and shortly after the lawsuit, the county responded swiftly to the threat of COVID by implementing several policies to reduce the population — including $0 bail — that helped cut the jail’s population by almost 37 percent in mid-2020, from more than 900 to around 550 people.
According to Fischer, both county leadership and those overseeing jail operations — including Sheriff Bill Brown and Wellpath, the jail’s contracted private medical care provider — took meaningful steps to address the risk of COVID transmission. “The Sheriff’s Office and Wellpath leadership and staff are to be commended for their efforts during these perilous times,” Fischer writes in the letter. But, he writes, the pandemic is not over, “and the county cannot take its eye off the ball.”
As another year passes, public spaces open; capacity for stadiums, concerts, and theaters rises back to pre-pandemic levels; and institutions begin anticipating a return to normalcy. That tolerance for more crowded spaces, coupled with a concerted effort by some judges to keep repeat offenders off the street, had led to the jail’s population slowly creeping up past 700 — which Fischer said is too crowded to properly address the conditions stipulated in the Remedial Plan.
The population is creating an “intolerable situation of crowded housing units, dangerous staffing deficits, and unsafe conditions,” he writes, and led to the reopening of housing units that should be closed. The basement dorms particularly, Fischer said, are overcrowded and do not have enough ventilation to safely house as many inmates as it currently does. At least one COVID-positive patient was forced to sleep on the floor.
The letter serves more as a reminder than legal action, in hopes that the county acknowledges and takes steps to address the issues, as Fischer writes, “such that judicial enforcement proceedings do not become necessary.”
Though the outbreak has caused some concerns, both Fischer and staff at the county agree it isn’t because of a lack of trying. Custody and Wellpath staff have been fighting dwindling employee numbers, with health-care staff operating at 45 percent of intended levels and mental-health-care staffing facing a 50 percent vacancy rate. The staff is worked to the bone, Fischer said, and with the jail population back up, it’s just not feasible for the inmates to receive adequate care.
Sheriff’s Chief Custody Deputy Vincent Wasilewski said the situation is currently being addressed and that the jail is likely on the back end of the outbreak. “We’re managing it,” Wasilewski said. “It is giving us some challenges.”
Wasilewski says the jail averages about 20-30 incoming arrests a day, and the jail has developed COVID response protocols for processing and separating those arrested. Those who are found to have been exposed are placed in cohorts for at least 10 days. These measures have helped prevent worst-case-scenarios so far: Out of the 208 individuals who have tested positive, 136 have fully recovered, and none have required hospitalization. Four have been released, dropping the number of active cases to 68.
As far as the population, Wasilewski said the county is considering a change in criteria that would allow more room for early release or alternative sentencing. “We discuss it constantly, and we’re exploring new ones,” he said.
Though opening the new Northern Branch Jail seems like an obvious and easy fix, Fischer and jail officials aren’t so certain; rushing the process would be a lot more complex than just moving inmates and staff in one fell swoop. The logistics would require scheduling and splitting a staff base that is already spread too thin and physically moving and settling the staff and population in the new facility.
Wasilewski says that the new branch should be available soon, though there are a few kinks to be worked out prior to any inmates being moved. “We’re looking at everything; we want to open up as soon as we can,” he said. “Some things aren’t finished.”
A more manageable population seems to be the answer, but Wasilewski said that alternatives are a two-edged sword, especially with the recent cases of individuals being released only to be arrested shortly again after. “There’s always that worry, he said. “Anytime you put people into alternatives, they are out in the world.” It’s unclear whether District Attorney Joyce Dudley is open to releasing more inmates earlier, given the push to preserve public safety on the outside.
Wasilewski estimates that about 10 percent of those currently in the jail are being held on misdemeanor charges. According to the latest numbers released by the Sheriff’s Office, 87 out of the 738 individuals currently being held in the Main Jail are facing misdemeanor charges. “We’re just about as lean as we can be,” Wasilewski said.
For the most part, the jail staff is using protocols that have been in place since early 2020. Inmates are tested before even entering the facility, and if they are negative, they are moved into the normal holding area.
Some have expressed concerns over this area, which can sometimes have up to two dozen individuals in one large cell. Wait times vary from eight to over 24 hours in this area, while new detainees are fingerprinted, screened, and booked. Once cleared, those who will be staying longer are placed into two-man cells for the 10-day quarantine period.
The jail has also received help from the state and county levels. The California Department of Public Health has sent a “strike team” to help with around-the-clock testing. “In the past week, each inmate has been tested at least three times,” Wasilewski said.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, Wellpath has provided 630 vaccinations at the jail since the beginning of the pandemic, and most recently, the jail has implemented an incentive program with money toward commissary for those who receive the vaccine. In just two days, 148 individuals were vaccinated under the program, with 100 more set to receive a vaccine.
The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department has pitched in with two registered nurses and one nurse practitioner, and the Department of Behavioral Wellness provided two mental-health clinicians to the facility.
At least two people have died by suicide while in quarantine at the jail, and several others have attempted suicide while in the quarantine housing, according to Fischer’s letter.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, Wasilewski says. Thursday, January 5, was the first day in over a month that found no new positive cases. He hopes that it marks the end of this outbreak, which is the jail’s worst since September 2021.
The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors will also discuss the matter at its January 11 meeting.
UPDATE: This story was updated shortly after publishing to include the latest number of cases in the outbreak.
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