The total number of COVID-19 cases in Santa Clara County jails has nearly tripled over the past three weeks, headlined by an outbreak in medium-security units, as officials — in a rare moment of moment public contrition — acknowledged that adherence to physical distancing and mask wearing inside the South Bay’s custody facilities has fallen short.
Data from the sheriff”s office shows that, as of Sunday, county jails have had 151 positive tests of inmates since they began recording cases in March, with 98 of those emerging since July 20. Since the beginning of August, the jails have seen more than 60 new positive cases, renewing anxieties about inmates being transported to and from court, where regular visitors, including attorneys, have raised their own concerns about crowding and uneven enforcement of safety protocols.
Also as of Sunday, county jails — which include the Elmwood Correctional Complex in Milpitas and the Main Jail in North San Jose — reported that 82 inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 are currently in custody, the majority in Elmwood.
“In this pandemic, you simply can’t keep people socially distanced in the jail,” said county public defender Molly O’Neal. “And we have lawyers in court every day, and there are not enough people making sure that people are following the rules.”
The public’s ability to monitor the scope of the infection problem in county jails has also been hindered: Last week, the sheriff’s office abruptly changed its public-facing online dashboard tracking COVID-19 jail cases and removed the cumulative total of the county’s in-custody coronavirus cases. Now, the only tangible figure offered for inmate infections is the number of those who are currently in jail. Over 5,100 tests have been administered to inmates since March.
“To remove a component of transparency at this point with an outbreak is astonishing to me,” O’Neal said. “If that number is so high you don’t want to talk about it, that’s a real problem, and we have to find a way to get more folks out of there, to save lives.”
Laurelyn Bracamontes, a registered nurse whose husband has been held in Elmwood since March 2018, said her husband tested positive for COVID-19 about two weeks ago, and that he has moved units four times during what should be his quarantine period.
“He’s being mixed with positives and negatives. It’s not a proper quarantine,” Bracamontes said. “If a wildfire was coming toward the facility, the ethical thing to do would be move them or remove them. What seems to happening now is they’re basically saying we’re going to let them burn.”
In a statement Monday, the sheriff’s office said they “are concerned about the health and welfare of those in our care and are committed to providing the best custody and medical services possible,” and that COVID-19 testing is being expanded to all jail staff, with a goal of testing 20% of staff members every week. The office also said it is testing infected inmates at least twice before they are released from quarantine or the infirmary into the general housing population, though multiple inmates who were infected have told this news organization that this stated testing practice has not been consistent.
What has been consistent is the assertions by inmates, their families, and defense attorneys that basic safety protocols are difficult if not impossible to practice in jail settings — and that’s even after the county decreased the daily jail census by more than a third, to below 2,100, thanks to a series of amnesty and emergency policy measures.
“There’s no social distance, some have access to masks, some don’t, and some get masks just before they go to court. Guards are wearing masks half the time,” said Lara Wallman, a deputy public defender who is representing four in-custody defendants who have been infected. “Most of my clients are people of color who are at high risk for complications. It could be death sentence, and it’s only a matter of time before people are dying.”
At a virtual meeting last week with the county supervisors’ Public Safety and Justice Committee, Assistant Sheriff Timothy Davis conceded that adherence to safety protocols has been lagging.
“We understand that compliance in the jails across all of our groups, civilian and sworn, is not 100 percent,” Davis said. “And because of that we are striving to implement protocols to enforce 100 percent compliance not just with social distancing but also with the mask wearing, and proper mask wearing at that.”
“We know we have to increase supervision, and potential corrective action,” he said.
O’Neal also continues to worry about the effect of the pandemic at the courthouse, given movement of jailed defendants coming to and from the site of the outbreaks.She added that current protocols have not effectively addressed defense attorneys’ need for realtime private conversations with their clients.
“We need fewer people in the courthouse, and a better way to communicate with clients,” she said. “We could be looking at a perfect storm with the outbreak at the jail, and a lack of compliance checks in court.”
The county Superior Court for its part, says that robust social-distancing and mask-wearing protocols are in place at the Hall of Justice in North San Jose, which for the foreseeable future will be the only open courthouse for criminal cases in the county. Court officials continue to encourage attorneys to use remote video or teleconference and appear on behalf of their clients in misdemeanor cases.