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As COVID-19 cases spike at Santa Rita jail, advocates demand release of inmates

*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. 

“There’s no stations in there for people to wash their hands often. They’re not passing out masks in that quarantine area. Nobody in that area had masks, except for the guards. They’re allowing people to go into the shower area, into the main TV area, and they’re keeping people in their cells, but nobody has masks.”

­— Byron Aldridge, June 17, 2020

Testimonies from inside Santa Rita
(found at srjsolidarity.org)

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.”  

Advocates rally outside the East County Hall of Justice in Dublin on July 20, demanding the release of inmates at the Santa Rita Jail following a spike in COVID-19 cases. Photo: Sam Moore

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.  

“They were bringing in people without properly screening them. They were just putting them in the pod. Since there was such a high influx of inmates, they were just kicking them right out. So I ended up getting a cellie who I believe was probably infected with COVID. He was only in my cell for about 24 hours. I could tell there was something wrong with the guy because he was sweating and he didn’t want to come out to eat or anything. He said he was just kicking dope, and I was like, “Are you sure that’s what it is, man? You should probably contact the medical staff.” But he was like, “No, I’ll be alright.” A few hours later, they kicked him out. Two weeks later, I started feeling really cold and immediately knew there was something wrong with me. I rarely get sick. So I went directly to Deputy Whitlock – he was the officer on duty that day – and I was like, “Hey man, I know there’s something wrong with me. I need to be seen by medical staff.” So I ended up getting quarantined because I tested positive for COVID. While I was there, there were no medical services given. I requested a blanket through my tablet – never given to me. I told them I was really cold. There was no empathy at all for us. We were left to die.” ­

— Angelo Valdez, May 22, 2020

TESTIMONIES FROM INSIDE SANTA RITA
(FOUND AT SRJSOLIDARITY.ORG)

“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. 

“I am incarcerated at the Santa Rita Jail. I am a federal inmate. I am pretrial. While housed in Housing Unit 32, I caught COVID-19. First Johnny, then Justin. Then other people developed symptoms. On April 18, 2020, I started coughing. I could not inhale. I had a fever, headaches diarrhea. I had the shivers. I was dizzy. The light bothered my eyes. I thought I had the COVID, but I didn’t know much about it. The jail gave me no information.

The jail then threw me into solitary confinement. The cell they put me in was so filthy. Everything about that cell was filthy, the walls, the floors, the concrete slab where you put your mattress, the sink. And so when they put me in there, and I was already feeling bad, I couldn’t lay down because the cell was so dirty. All I could do was sit on the small metal stool, for hours, until they finally brought some cleaning supplies. The jail just threw me into a filthy cell and closed the door.

The next day, they gave me the COVID test, and on April 30, 2020, I tested positive. In solitary confinement, I got nothing. No cough drops, no extra blanket, no Tylenol, no hot drink, nothing. Just be in that room and suffer. Truly, I thought I was going to die. I think about Johnny. I wondered if Johnny died. I never saw him again after they took him.”

— Tyronne Alexander Jones, May 6, 2020

TESTIMONIES FROM INSIDE SANTA RITA
(FOUND AT SRJSOLIDARITY.ORG)

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.  

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