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

As of Wednesday, January 26, the COVID outbreak at Santa Barbara’s Main Jail has reached 249 individuals since the first positive case was discovered on December 8, 2021. The extent of the outbreak, conditions of the facility, and death of an inmate who was placed in a single-occupancy cell — naked and facedown — have sparked a courthouse vigil on Saturday evening organized by the League of Women Voters of Santa Barbara and Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), and co-sponsored by 14 other groups.

“We want to shine a light on the January 12 death in the jail of a man recently arrested and incarcerated, as well as on the unhealthful conditions and unjust treatment of incarcerated individuals in our local jail,” said Pam Flynt Tambo, League of Women Voters’ vice president of programs. “Dramatic change is needed to address not only the jail’s out-of-control spread of COVID-19, but also the shortcomings in the entire system, from intake and evaluation of individuals to their treatment and release from custody.”  

Out of the 249 cases in the outbreak, 208 inmates have fully recovered, and four have been released, resulting in a total of 37 active cases. COVID-positive individuals at the jail are monitored by custody and Wellpath staff, and so far none of the cases have required hospitalization, 48 inmates have reported being symptomatic, and 200 have been asymptomatic.

The brand-new Northern Branch Jail was cleared for occupancy on January 22, and 244 inmates were moved into the state-of-the-art facility in Santa Maria, which was completed in November 2021 but required a few last-minute fixes before being cleared for population.

As of Tuesday, January 25, there were a total of 234 individuals housed at the Northern Branch, according to Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Raquel Zick.

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“We are continuing to work towards getting the Northern Branch Jail fully open,” Zick told the Independent. “Inmates housed in the Northern Branch are those who are medically at higher risk for COVID and have been vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID. This is one of the many steps that we are taking to curtail the outbreak at the Main Jail.”

Inmates are tested when they arrive at the Main Jail, and are housed separately from the general population during the initial 10 days of their stay. When individuals test positive at the jail, they are moved into “negative pressure cells,” according to the Sheriff’s Office, and in the case of an outbreak only those with active symptoms are moved. The rest are placed together into cohorts and isolated from other inmates. Inmates in other areas are tested whenever they exhibit symptoms or have been exposed to someone who has tested positive. 

An incentive program, funded by the American Rescue Plan Act, is used to award newly vaccinated inmates with $20 added to their commissary fund for full vaccination or $10 for a booster, and resulted in nearly 150 vaccinations in two days. Wellpath has administered over 780 vaccinations at the Main Jail since the beginning of the pandemic.

The vigil is scheduled to take place 5-6 p.m. on Saturday, January 29, at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. The event will feature speakers including JP Herrada, program director and cofounder of the Alternatives to Violence Project, and Juan Higuera, co-chair of the Racial Justice Committee of Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s  Office. 

Members from the League, CLUE, and at least 14 co-sponsoring organizations are joining the vigil,  calling for “immediate changes” that  include “safely reducing the number of jail inmates, ensuring alternative placements to address mental health needs,” and more effective assessment of incoming arrestees.

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