Santa Rita Jail adjusts as organizations call for action amid COVID-19

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As Santa Rita Jail is taking precautions in light of the COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus, pandemic, organizations and activists are pushing for more drastic measures.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the facility, the Santa Rita Jail has reduced the number of incoming inmates by utilizing cite and release, educating the remaining inmates on COVID-19 through a video and providing more cleaning products. Additionally, low-risk offenders were released from Santa Rita Jail on March 25, following the 247 who were released March 19.

“They are not expendable entities, but essential human beings,” said Rev. Jim Hopkins at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in a press release. “It is in this vein that we call on the Alameda County Sheriff to take needed action, to take moral action.”

Several organizations have since advocated for more inmates to be released. In a press release, Californians United for a Responsible Budget applauded California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s efforts to release inmates, but also urged him to no longer exclude inmates who have committed violent offenses from being released.

Faith in Action — an organization that seeks to build leaders through communities and create systemic change — also demanded increased access to cleaning products including soap and warm water. It is also pushing for the restoration of MediCal, finding shelter for those who are released and continuing early release for as many people as possible, especially those from vulnerable populations.

“At least a week ago, people were being released from the jail with absolutely no coordination with healthcare or social services,” said Jean Moses, a member of Faith in Action. “It’s also crucially important for the people who are released from Santa Rita Jail that they have someplace to go.”

According to Moses, inmates have also had access to a limited number of free calls and additional hours for attorneys to visit. Moses added, however, that there needs to be more transparency through frequent public hearings, which can be helpful to families and advocates.

Alameda County Sheriff Gregory Ahern asked for an increase in Santa Rita Jail’s budget by $85 million dollars.

Alameda County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Sgt. Ray Kelly said the increase in the budget would go toward hiring more deputies, supervision and management. Additionally, he said the Santa Rita Jail is currently facing several lawsuits and it is trying to take a proactive approach by addressing many of the faults the lawsuits address.

Berkeley City Councilmember Kate Harrison urged the public to take virtual action against the budget increase by asking people to tune in to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors meeting and utilize public comment. The meeting was originally scheduled for March 31, but has been pushed back.

Several precautions are being taken at Santa Rita Jail to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to Kelly.

More specifically, it has implemented a color-coded system where green represents someone who is asymptomatic and not at risk, orange represents those who are at risk and yellow indicates that the person has had exposure to COVID-19 but is asymptomatic. Lastly, red designates those with COVID-19. Kelly said there are no current inmates in the red category.

Each inmate is assigned a color, and each color has corresponding zones in the jail, according to Kelly. Staff wear personal protective equipment around all inmates except for those in the green.

Additionally, they have provided extra soap and sanitary wipes and are placing released inmates who are unhoused into hotels.

Santa Rita Jail typically has about 2,600 inmates, according to Kelly. So far, it has released a total of 500 inmates, leaving the jail’s population at about 2,100.

“The lower number makes the facility more manageable,” Kelly said. “Considering circumstances, it’s working out rather well.”

Contact Mela Seyoum at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @melaseyoum.