Jamaine Barnes wouldn’t want his worst enemy to be in the Sacramento County jails during the pandemic.
He says he’s fully vaccinated and a COVID-19 survivor. Now, he’s battling the virus again, and says it’s “impossible” to escape.
“They’re constantly keeping the jail full, constantly arresting people every day,” Jamaine said in a phone interview. “It’s impossible to practice social distancing, so everybody will keep getting COVID-19.”
The county’s jails are seeing their biggest COVID-19 outbreak since last winter, when almost 300 incarcerated people tested positive.
The latest outbreak began Oct. 18, according to county Director of Health Services Chevon Kothari. As of Tuesday afternoon, she said there have been 191 cases across both the main Sacramento County Jail and the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove. Most are related to the outbreak, and all but one case occurred in unvaccinated people.
On Monday, the county announced the first COVID-related death — a 76-year-old man who was fully vaccinated and being treated for long-term health conditions. He died Oct. 25.
Sacramento County Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye said in a statement that quarantine protocols were in place and extensive testing was being done following the man’s death.
“We are working closely with Correctional Health staff to conduct contact tracing and mitigate the spread,” she said.
In light of the outbreak, Decarcerate Sacramento, an advocacy group whose aim is reducing jail and prison populations, held a press conference Tuesday to demand emergency releases to mitigate COVID-19 spread.
Jael Barnes, organizer with Decarcerate Sacramento and Jamaine’s wife, called conditions inside the jails “horrific.”
“For those of us on the outside, imagine how serious it is for our loved ones who are on the inside — pretrial or sentenced,” she said.
In Tuesday’s Sacramento County Board of Supervisors meeting, county supervisor Phil Serna suggested the possibility of expanding home detention. He also suggested releasing people in pretrial detention who are held on misdemeanor charges and those at high risk for COVID-19 in the interest of containing the outbreak.
“The more you keep people confined in a close environment, seems to me you’re gonna have a much smaller chance of containing the outbreak despite all of the initiative that has been taken to isolate people at different stages of the disease,” he said.
Last March, the sheriff’s office released over 400 people from Sacramento County jails with 60 days or less on their sentence to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Additionally, the state rolled out an early-release program last year for high-risk people with 180 days or less in their sentence, but the final list of those eligible was put together in July this year. The program also left behind several people with longer sentences, despite serious health conditions.
Frustration with the jail’s safety protocols
Jamaine says getting vaccinated was the easy part, and that he got his shot the first chance he could.
But he doesn’t represent the norm. Just 30% of the combined jail population had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of an Oct. 20 point-in-time count, according to the county’s public health department.
Inmates at the jail are not required to be vaccinated, but are “offered vaccinations and provided education about the benefits of vaccination,” the county said.
Still, Jamaine asks, if people are confined inside and most are vaccinated, “Why does COVID-19 keep on coming?”
“We can’t live, we can’t go out,” he said. “How does COVID keep on coming to where people previously tested negative?”
Part of that, he believes, is due to the way staff moved people around. For example, he questions how they handled his quarantining when he got COVID-19.
“They moved me to the eighth floor, then to the other half of the eighth floor, then to the fourth floor,” Jamaine said. “You see how many floors I touched? And I had COVID.”
Samantha Mott, spokesperson for the county health department, said in an email that they’re working with the sheriff’s office to ensure COVID-19 protocols are being followed.
As part of those safety protocols, Mott says jail staff are supposed to move people into one of four COVID-19 housing units: One for new arrestees or transfers, for close contacts, for people showing symptoms with a pending test, or for those who test positive.
“Any inmate exhibiting symptoms consistent with the CDC COVID-19 symptom list is tested and if confirmed, placed in COVID case isolation,” Mott said. “Inmates who may have been exposed are placed under quarantine.”
But Jael of Decarcerate Sacramento also raised concerns about vaccination for jail staff.
“At the end of the day, there are jail staff coming in and bringing this virus to their families, random people they encounter,” she said.
Under the state’s public health order, health care, custody and inmate workers must be vaccinated or undergo weekly testing if they have a qualified exemption.
Kothari said that as of last week, 95% of correctional health staff are vaccinated.
However, there’s no publicly available data on vaccination for correctional officers and staff.
Sandy Damiano, the county’s director of primary health services, said at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting that there were nurses onsite 24/7 and COVID-19 checks were completed daily or with more frequency if a person is symptomatic.
But Corinne McIntosh Sako, a licensed clinical psychologist, expressed doubt about the delivery of health care in the jails. She referenced the county’s recent monitoring report to note the county’s failing to provide required healthcare to those incarcerated.
The report, commissioned by the county as a result of a court settlement and released in January, said “there are serious and systemic issues resulting in harm to patients, including hospitalizations and death.”
“Of course there’s another COVID-19 outbreak between the two jail facilities,” Sako said during Tuesday’s press conference. “If the supervisors are serious about their resolution to declare racism a public health crisis [they should] use their power and platform to shine a light on this urgent and life-threatening crisis.”
County supervisors on Tuesday requested the inspector general look into procedures for intake, quarantine and virus tracing at the jails.