Lawyers representing the Santa Barbara County Main Jail population, Disability Rights California, Prison Law Office and King & Spalding LLP suggested the county improve its protocol to manage a COVID-19 outbreak of more than 200 cases at the jail.
The letter sent by attorney Aaron Fischer serves as a first step to mandating changes in a federal court.
“We’re prepared to do whatever is necessary,” Mr. Fischer told the News-Press.
The COVID-19 monitoring by Mr. Fischer and other representatives is part of a July 2020 class-action settlement between them and the county. The case, Murray v. County of Santa Barbara, stemmed from an alleged lack of care for a disabled veteran in the jail.
The county agreed to renovate the 50-year-old facility and modify policies as part of the settlement. Mr. Fischer said the relationships between parties have been “constructive” and has kept them away from trial.
He has sent letters to Santa Barbara County during past outbreaks in the Main Jail, which is located in Santa Barbara. But with nearly a third of inmates testing positive for COVID-19, he is especially concerned.
“My impression is that the Santa Barbara County jail, in this particular surge, is in a worse situation than most counties,” said Mr. Fischer, a representative in similar cases statewide.
“The facilities of the Santa Barbara County (Main) Jail are extraordinarily dangerous and conducive to mass transmission, and they are not equipped to meet this moment. And (the case rate) also speaks to, I believe, that the jail has too many people to be able to manage the current situation in custody.”
The county is drafting plans for the recently approved renovations to the jail.
The newly constructed North County branch jail in Santa Maria is ready for activation at any moment — if the county sheriff’s office can staff it.
The Santa Barbara County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association acknowledged a “critical staffing issue” at the jail but directed further questions to the sheriff’s office spokesperson (who can’t speak on pending litigation).
“People are under a lot of stress. The staff at the jail is exhausted,” said Mr. Fischer, who investigated conditions.
According to the letter sent to the county on Jan. 8, healthcare staffing is at 45% of intended, and half of mental healthcare roles are vacant.
Dr. Homer Venters, who monitors COVID-19 precautions in jails countrywide, suggested two precautions Dec. 29 not yet adopted by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office.
His first recommendation includes listing and monitoring high-risk incarcerated people so they don’t go unnoticed if they develop a severe case.
Dr. Venters also noted that the jail is not using the vaccination database. The letter says this is important for the administration of subsequent doses and identification of unvaccinated people (who would be treated as high-risk).
The jail stopped its vaccination efforts because of its staffing shortage but restarted them after a meeting with class counsel. It administered approximately 150 vaccinations between Dec. 30 and Jan. 2, according to the aforementioned letter.
The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department and the Department of Behavioral Wellness provided staff for the jail, and the California Department of Public Health sent a team to bolster testing.
Class counsel recommends the county reduce its jail population. Between March and June 2020, the population fell 37%, but counsel is noticing a “significant increase” in the population.
At its lowest, the jail housed under 580 people. Now 723 are incarcerated.
Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley told the News-Press there’s been a rise in violent crime and arrests in the county.
The Santa Barbara County Grand Jury issued a report on diversion tactics last month. According to its report, 80% of those in a COVID-19 pretrial release program did not reoffend. An estimated 75-80% of the Main Jail’s population is awaiting trial.
District Attorney Dudley said minor offenses are still on a “zero bail” policy, meaning the accused do not have to pay a bail to stay out of jail pending trial. She said those in custody have been arrested for larger crimes.
“How much are we letting down the public by taking people who have been accused of crimes and not booking them in county jail or releasing them early?” she said. “I have public safety concerns about the jail and public safety concerns about the public.”
She noted a recent case where a man was released and, soon after, was reported in someone’s home.
The letter from class counsel advocates for release measures that balance public safety and meeting the needs of the county’s incarcerated — including the demands of the court-ordered settlement.
“They’re allowing their jail to be populated to an extent where staff cannot do the necessary both in terms of COVID in general operations and health care. And that is extraordinarily dangerous,” Mr. Fischer said.
A 45-year-old man died 31 minutes after being booked in a single-occupant safety cell Wednesday morning. A cause of death has not been reported, and the investigation is open.
“It would not surprise me if, the horrible deaths that occurred this week at the jail, that the COVID situation contributed to that terrible outcome. Whether due to staff just being stretched way too thin, but the person shouldn’t be dying in a safety cell the way that that person did on the ground,” Mr. Fischer said.
According to a December status report of the county’s implementation of the Murray settlement, Dr. Venter found the county only “partially compliant” in many areas. The county had marked those requirements as completed.