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COVID-19 Out of Control in Sacramento Jails, Releases Far From Adequate

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

On January 7, the Sacramento Superior Court signed an order to release less than 5% of the Sacramento County jail population despite a COVID outbreak tearing through the jail system. The order will take effect on January 11 for people with less than 90 days left on their sentences "because the parties agree that it is in the best interest of public health." Currently, there are 187 active COVID cases due to the Sheriff Department's negligence. Prior to the court order, Sheriff Scott Jones requested the release of at least 160 people, making clear that the only option to reduce the outbreak is to release those detained in Sacramento County Jails.

Public health professionals have consistently recommended a 50% reduction in population to stop the spread. “By only considering extremely narrow categories of the population, Sheriff Jones is preventing the population reduction necessary to save lives, inside and outside the jails,” said Phil Summers, MD, MPH, an emergency medicine physician in Sacramento. “Policies and preventative efforts by jail staff can only do so much, but it is a losing battle and outbreaks are inevitable in these conditions. Early release in an equitable manner.

In April of 2020, Sacramento County Jail populations dropped by 30% due to COVID-related releases driven by community advocates and the Office of the Public Defender. At that time, just over 300 cumulative cases had been reported in Sacramento County. We now have over 71,000 confirmed cases with an increase of roughly 800 new cases per day. While the pandemic escalated dramatically, Sacramento’s jail population steadily climbed back up to its dangerous pre-pandemic levels. In just one week, 120 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Sacramento jails and 26% of the 460 tests administered during that time came back positive. While the Sheriff reports 187 active cases of people currently in custody, the Department has not tested everyone in the jails so the actual number of those infected is likely much higher.

“Confining people and involuntarily exposing them to hazardous situations in which they may contract a deadly virus, is not only unethical, it is cruel and unusual,” said Dr. Summers. Pamela Emanuel of Decarcerate Sacramento recalls her distress, “I spent most of this pandemic incarcerated in the Sacramento County Jail system, and consistently witnessed outright medical neglect, unsanitary conditions, including bugs in the food, denial of showers and clean clothes, and zero access to disinfecting cleaning supplies.” Deputies continue to move between quarantine and non-quarantine cells, sometimes without masks, more than likely contributing to the super-spread of the virus. “I am appalled at the treatment my loved one is receiving while he is stuck in an 80-person dorm,” said a family member who wishes to remain anonymous, due to fear of retaliation. “At one point, he was put in quarantine for over a week without his medications, and was allowed to make only one phone call every three days. Jail staff even laughed at him when he requested his inhaler.”

Advocates and health professionals continue to demand mass emergency releases and sustained depopulation of the Sacramento County Jail system. “We cannot continue arresting and incarcerating people into a system with no medical director and sub-constitutional medical care, where social distancing is impossible,” said Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area who has worked with people detained in the Sacramento County jail system for the past four years. “We need Sheriff Jones and the Superior Court to exercise their leadership, and base their decisions on health and safety, not fear and tough-on-crime politics.”

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