ACLU seeks information on county jail outbreaks

Coronavirus

SAN DIEGO (CNS) – The American Civil Liberties Union filed a public records request Monday seeking information regarding a surge of COVID-19 cases in San Diego County jail facilities, which it alleges are overcrowded and in need of an urgent inmate population reduction in order to stem the spread of the virus.

Richard J. Donovan prison is located in South San Diego just north of the U.S.-Mexico border. (Courtesy: KSWB)

The request seeks information on the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department’s practices regarding how it’s handled COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, including its protocols for identifying medically vulnerable people within the jails, implementation of social distancing among inmates,  adherence to Centers for Disease Control & Prevention testing protocols, and guidelines for limiting inmate transfers between its facilities.

The ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial counties alleges the current situation necessitates “an immediate reduction” in the jail population in order to halt the spread of the virus, and that “a significant cause of the outbreak appears to be the (sheriff’s) department’s refusal to release sufficient people to permit social distancing or consistently enforce reasonable prevention policies.”

A sheriff’s department representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The latest public figures indicate that as of Dec. 18, there were 388 active COVID-19 cases among inmates at seven San Diego County jail facilities — up from 161 on Nov. 30 — and 637 people overall have tested positive since the onset of the pandemic.

The ACLU alleges that following an initial reduction in the jail population, the number of inmates has steadily risen, making social distancing impossible at facilities that are nearing full capacity.

“When the Sheriff’s efforts should have been focused on reducing the population in every San Diego jail facility to protect the incarcerated people entrusted to his care from COVID-19, he has instead decided to keep the facilities packed and even increase their populations heading into the winter,” the ACLU alleges.

The ACLU notes a recent court-ordered population reduction in Orange County that was implemented to improve social distancing among inmates, stating the 74-person outbreak there “pales in comparison” to San Diego County’s numbers.

In its 14-page request, the ACLU also questions whether new intakes can be quarantined properly due to high jail capacity levels and whether jail staff are adequately tested to prevent sheriff’s employees from introducing the virus to inmates.

“The situation in county jails has become urgent and requires an immediate reduction to the jail population,” said ACLUF-SDIC Senior Staff Attorney Bardis Vakili. “With 388 active cases in jails, an additional 106 incarcerated people who are isolated due to COVID-like symptoms or possible exposure, and 105 sheriff’s employees with active cases, the Sheriff’s failure to use his authority to release enough people to permit social distancing is unreasonably risking the lives of those entrusted to his custody and care.

“At a nearly 10 percent infection rate, the regular movement of staff in and out means that the Sheriff is placing the entire county at risk, as well,” Valiki said. “Bars and razor wire cannot stop the virus from ravaging through the jails or spreading to the community at large.”

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