On the heels of a big outbreak to start the year, Santa Clara County jails have recorded an even larger surge in COVID-19 infections over the past week, hitting an all-time peak and spurring prosecutors, public defenders and judges to consider a batch release of inmates akin to rapid jail-population-reduction efforts at the start of the pandemic.
On Wednesday afternoon, the sheriff’s office reported 109 active COVID-19 cases in the county jails, predominantly in the men’s jail at the Elmwood Correctional Complex in Milpitas. But that is a shifting figure affected by people both coming into and coming out of infection; raw data shows that nearly 120 new cases have surfaced since Jan. 5, accounting for 25% of the 480 jail infections recorded since March.
The new year has also been marked by two of the jails’ highest single-day new infection totals of the pandemic: 35 on Jan. 2 and 36 on Jan. 4. The fourth highest one-day count, 22, was recorded Tuesday.
“It simply isn’t safe to congregate large numbers of people in custodial facilities, particularly as the virus appears to be more easily transmitted and the positivity rate is higher than ever,” said county Public Defender Molly O’Neal.
O’Neal said she has been working with the District Attorney’s Office to renew the discussions and negotiations that led to an accelerated de-population of the county jails during the first few months of the pandemic, bringing the daily jail census down from about 3,200 to hovering around 2,200 currently.
That came by forging agreements with the courts, probation and pretrial services officers to expand jail amnesty and electronic monitoring options to people arrested on suspicion of misdemeanors and low-level felonies, and sentencing breaks to those who were within a few weeks of their release dates . Since then, the county courts have extended $ 0 bail relief for low-offense arrests to maintain distancing capacity in Elmwood and the Main Jail in San Jose.
“We believe we can safely release a number of individuals like this,” District Attorney Jeff Rosen said, “to try to give the jail the physical capacity it needs to isolate, quarantine and keep the outbreak from getting worse.”
It’s unlikely that the new efforts to release inmates either early or to keep them from being admitted into jail outright will result in another 1,000-person drop in the jail census, in part because so many eligible inmates were released in the first wave and because of what O’Neal said was constant pressure from her office and other defense attorneys to secure $ 0 bail or monitored release from judges.
But the conditions inside the jails remain dire, according to inmates, their family members, and even jail staff who spoke in confidence to this news organization for fear of official retaliation.
In Elmwood, multiple men’s dorms have been cleared out with people being relocated to other parts of the compound to quarantine, including at least one section of the women’s jail because of space demands. Some inmates have described being in virtual isolation because of quarantine protocols, in some cases being allowed to leave their cells for no more than half an hour each day.
Chronic complaints also continue to be made about infrequent shower allowances, inadequate clothing provisions and a dearth of hygiene and cleaning supplies.
These kinds of conditions prompted a group of inmates in the 7B wing of the Main Jail to start a hunger strike Wednesday to compel jail staff to comply with safety protocols including consistent mask wearing and keeping exposed and infected people from mixing with healthy people. Visiting has also been suspended or severely restricted.
The 7B wing merits particular attention because it was the site of an outbreak in December, and coincided with the revelation that multiple correctional deputies and supervisors gathered indoors, unmasked, at a private holiday party that surfaced on Facebook.
“Covid has entered our jail and endangered our lives through staff, their negligence and procedure violations,” reads a letter released Wednesday on behalf of 7B inmates. “The Jail Administration is putting us in an unhealthy situation.”
Instances like the deputy party have prompted many jail observers to conclude that given the relative isolation of the jail population, they suspect infection risks have been coming into the jails increasingly through deputies and other jail staff. California data as of Wednesday showed a 14-day positivity rate of about 13.3%, while the county jail is showing a rate of 11.7%.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Low said jail officials continue to step up efforts to try and control the spread of the virus and ensure their staff are maintaining safe practices. He said custody staff is now being rapid-tested for COVID-19 on a daily basis, and that their contact tracers “routinely review video footage to make sure all staff assigned to the jails are adhering to wearing masks, especially when around inmates and in dorms. ”
Low added that jail deputies and staff began receiving vaccinations Wednesday.
Still, O’Neal continued to voice concern about the feasibility of keeping people safe in a custody setting, saying she gets daily reports of inmates who have been quarantined, exposed, or even infected with the virus getting transported to and from court. That reality, she added, gives the current jail-relief discussions another layer of gravity.
“Now is the time to act because the numbers are growing daily and it is less and less safe to be incarcerated in Santa Clara County,” she said. “All low level offenders and those with a minimum amount of time remaining on their sentences should be sent home and out of harm’s way.”