ACLU investigating local jail COVID-19 surge

Scene from the Vista Jail in 2015/KPBS file photo

The ACLU Foundation of San Diego & Imperial Counties (ACLUF-SDIC) filed a California Public Records Act request Monday, Dec. 21 seeking information on the alarming surge of COVID-19 cases in San Diego County jails. According to the Sheriff’s Department website, as of Dec. 18, 637 people incarcerated in its jails have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began.

“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.

 The number of active COVID-19 cases at county jails has more than doubled from 161 on Nov. 30 to 388 on Dec. 18. From the beginning of this pandemic, the ACLU and other organizations have been calling on local jails, prisons and detention centers to reduce their populations due to the high risk of outbreaks.

 The ACLUF-SDIC’s public records request is seeking information on county jail infection rates that is broken down by facility and by race. Additionally, it requests information on how the Sheriff’s Department is:

  • Identifying and protecting medically vulnerable people;
  • Exercising its authority to reduce the incarcerated population to allow social distancing; and
  • Following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) testing protocols and its guidelines regarding limiting transfers of people who are incarcerated.  

On Nov. 10, San Diego County was assigned to California’s most restrictive purple tier due to exceeding the state’s threshold of 7 percent positivity rate. On Dec. 7, the Southern California region was placed on a state-mandated stay-at-home order to help curb a spike in COVID-19 cases.

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.

.“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,” Vakili said.

“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. Bars and razor wire cannot stop the virus from ravaging through the jails or spreading to the community at large,” Vakili added.

 Crowded jails

Conditions in crowded incarceration facilities – where people eat, sleep and live in extremely close quarters with poor ventilation – make it impossible to maintain the social distancing and hygienic standards that help slow the spread of COVID-19. As a result, these facilities have been the epicenters of some of the largest outbreaks in the country.

Although the populations of a few San Diego jails have been reduced, several of the largest jail facilities – including San Diego Central, George Bailey, South Bay and Vista – remain packed with people.

In response to a lawsuit filed earlier this year by the ACLU of Southern California, a Superior Court judge ordered on Dec. 11, 2020, the Sheriff’s Department in Orange County to reduce its jail population by 50 percent. The lawsuit was seeking the release and protection of incarcerated people who are medically vulnerable and/or disabled.

Read the ACLU’s public records request here:

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