*Editor’s note: Sam Moore is a journalism student in SF State’s Journalism 575 Community Media this spring. Taught by professor Jon Funabiki, the class is a collaboration with El Tecolote.
Following a recent spike in COVID-19 cases at Santa Rita Jail, community members and local organizers gathered for a march and press conference in front of the East County Hall of Justice in Dublin on Monday July 20 to demand accountability on behalf of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department and the release of those incarcerated at the jail.
Jail officials reported 40 new cases on July 16th, then an additional 55 the next day. As of July 22, 178 people at the jail had contracted the virus, according to the Sheriff’s Office. As of press time, the number of positive cases has grown to 208.
Organizers from Monday’s press conference attest that the jail’s notoriously inhumane conditions provided a breeding ground for the virus to spread within its walls.
“Santa Rita Jail is riddled with systemic abuses left and right,” said Jose Bernal, the Organizing Manager at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
“We’re talking 46 in-custody deaths in the last 5 years that we know of,” Bernal said.
“This pandemic only makes things tenfold worse. In the last 48 hours between last Friday and Sunday, cases spiked by 1,500 percent. We cannot allow that to continue. We are here demanding releases of our folks from Santa Rita Jail.”
Among those present at the press conference was Yolanda Huang, a civil rights attorney who has represented prisoners from Santa Rita in several lawsuits, including the case of Gonzalez v. Ahern, which followed a work and hunger strike among Santa Rita inmates last October in protest of the jail’s cruel and unsanitary conditions.
According to Huang, 85 percent of those incarcerated at Santa Rita are being held pretrial and have not yet been charged with any crimes.
“That means that 85 percent of the people in Santa Rita are innocent because they haven’t had their trial, they haven’t been convicted,” Huang said. “And yet, as innocent people, they’re not protected by the law. They are subject to all the terrible things that you’ve heard about what’s going on at Santa Rita. Santa Rita has one of the highest death rates of any jail in the Bay Area or in California, and we can’t get to the bottom of this because Sheriff Ahern’s approach is to be as opaque as possible, to let people on the outside know as little as possible about what’s going on.”
Huang collaborated with the National Lawyers Guild to set up the Santa Rita Jail Hotline, a free hotline for anyone to call and discuss COVID-19 and the conditions within the jail. Prisoners’ testimonies are also collected and posted on the Santa Rita Jail Solidarity website — many of which document a striking lack of medical care, PPE, proper sanitization or adherence to preventive measures among staff within the jail.
“This outbreak is an inevitable explosion,” said Lina García, the SRJ Hotline’s coordinator. “Conditions were at a crisis level long before this pandemic began. It’s a reality inside the jail that people are not able to socially distance or properly clean up after themselves, even if they want to.”
According to García, the culture among sheriff’s deputies inside the jail is also a likely contributor to the outbreak.
“Deputies there have a culture of disrespect and cruelty,” García said. “I think prior to the pandemic, this resulted in a lot of abuse of power and abuse of prisoners. It now has seamlessly transitioned over to a disrespect for basic preventive measures that could keep people from getting sick. Deputies refuse to do simple things like wear their masks or change their gloves when moving between housing units.”
García highlighted several steps the Sheriff’s Department can take to ensure a safer environment for those incarcerated at Santa Rita — the first being the immediate release of all pretrial prisoners.
“The only way to ensure that people can create social distancing is to reduce the population of the jail,” she said. Another group that should be released are those who are sick, so they can seek medical help from hospitals better equipped to treat serious illnesses. Everyone should be tested upon their release, García said, and the jail should provide free phone calls to prisoners instead of charging $0.50 per minute to call loved ones or lawyers. Deputies should face consequences for failing to wear masks or observe other preventive measures. Additionally, Alameda County should conduct unannounced inspections by an independent third party instead of planned, guided tours of the jail.
García said organizers and the National Lawyers Guild are also calling for the cancellation of the Sheriff’s Department’s contract with federal marshalls, which allows the Sheriff’s Department to profit from housing prisoners with federal cases at Santa Rita. According to García, 40 people held under this contract tested positive for COVID-19 at the jail as of July 17.
Those wishing to call the SRJ Hotline can do so at (510) 925-4060, and testimonies from people incarcerated at Santa Rita can be found at srjsolidarity.org.
Santa Rita Jail officials did not respond to a request for comment.