Detainees at Santa Rita say that the sheriff’s office hasn’t tested enough people to reflect the true spread of the virus inside the jail. Photo: Pete Rosos

On March 5, Leonard Wakefield woke up in his Santa Rita Jail cell having trouble breathing. His head hurt, and he felt like he was going to throw up. A deputy escorted Wakefield to the jail’s health clinic where he saw a nurse but, he said, she declined to take his temperature. Later that night, he complained to deputies that he was still in pain. They gave him a Tylenol and, Wakefield said, told him he could see a doctor the next day.

Early the next morning, jail deputies instead transported Wakefield to the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland for a previously scheduled hearing. He was locked in a small holding cell with other detainees. By then, his head was aching so badly that he lowered himself down onto the cell floor.

“I never laid on these floors, but I had to lay on the floor cause I knew they ain’t gonna do anything for me,” Wakefield told Berkeleyside in a phone interview.

After the hearing, Wakefield was taken back to Santa Rita. He continued to ask for medical attention. About six weeks after he first felt ill, Wakefield was finally tested for COVID-19. In mid-April, his results came back: positive. 

Deputies moved him into a quarantine area—Housing Unit 8 East, C Pod—with other sick inmates. At Santa Rita, a “pod” is a large central room onto which multiple cell doors open. “The pods are dirty, I’m not going to lie to you,” Wakefield said.

Wakefield was arrested in mid-January and charged with human trafficking and rape. He pleaded not guilty. After spending three months in jail, he pleaded guilty on April 22 to pandering, and the district attorney dismissed all other charges.

A few days after Berkeleyside spoke with Wakefield, he was released from Santa Rita for time served and sentenced to five years’ probation, according to court records. We have since been unable to contact him, and we don’t know what happened to him after he tested positive for COVID-19.

Other inmates we’ve spoken to over the past three weeks echoed Wakefield’s criticisms and concerns. Detainees said few people inside the jail are being tested. Based on their own experiences and the symptoms their cellmates are displaying, they believe the number of prisoners infected by the virus is much higher than the official count of 50 posted on the sheriff’s website.

Inmates said they’re not being provided with enough protective equipment like face masks, soap, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies. Many areas of the jail remain crowded, they said, despite the hundreds of people released to date in response to the pandemic.

“We ain’t given no cleaning supplies, the showers smell like piss, and they keep submitting all this false information to the public,” said Eric Wayne, who has been in Santa Rita since February 2019. He said prisoners have each only been given a couple of disposable masks since the outbreak began, and they’ve been expected to wear the same mask for days or weeks on end, even after it has been soiled or damaged.

The sheriff’s office said its efforts are among the best in the nation among jails and prisons. Alameda County Sheriff’s Sergeant Ray Kelly told Berkeleyside that inmates have been given adequate supplies of soap, PPE, and cleaning supplies, and the jail’s common areas are constantly cleaned and sanitized.

“We provide and continue to provide, masks, soap, hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray bottles, showers, linen exchange etc.,” Kelly wrote in an email responding to questions from Berkeleyside.

The jail and its medical provider, Wellpath, have developed an “outbreak master control plan” to slow the spread of COVID-19. The plan details how newly booked inmates are screened before entering the jail and how the complicated quarantine system is organized. Staff are given daily temperature checks at entry points.

In March, the sheriff ended contact visits between inmates and family members who might bring the virus into the jail. To allow detainees to communicate with their families, 400 tablets are passed out each day for prisoners to use to make calls. The tablets are part of a new program that was planned before the outbreak, but sped up once the virus was detected in the jail.

No detainees at Santa Rita Jail have died from the virus so far, and the sheriff’s office said the quality of its response is evident in that fact. “If our jail was not clean and if we were not providing supplies to inmates and staff, our infection numbers would be through the roof,” Kelly said. “Just look at other congregate-living facilities,” he added, referring to nursing and elder care homes where at least 18 have died in Alameda County. 

Detainees say, however, that the sheriff’s office hasn’t tested enough people to reflect the true spread of the virus inside the jail, and they fear that as the outbreak spreads further, some will become critically ill. Meanwhile, attorneys involved in an ongoing lawsuit related to safety conditions and inmate treatment at Santa Rita are pushing for greater testing, and inmates and advocates continue to push for yet more releases from the jail.

“Lots of us are still fighting our cases”

Santa Rita currently houses 1,764 detainees, many of whom are facing charges related to violent crimes. Over 800 other inmates were released from the jail since March 1, an unprecedented decision to reduce crowding and prevent a viral outbreak. Many of those released since March had pre-existing medical conditions, are above the age of 50, are awaiting trial on misdemeanor or nonviolent charges, or had less than 60 days left to serve on a sentence. Many would have left the jail before the pandemic altogether, had they been able to afford bail while they awaited trial.

Inmates and advocates are pushing for still more Santa Rita detainees to be released.

Alameda County’s sheriff and district attorney say those still detained in Santa Rita pose a risk to public safety. “Some people just can’t be released due to the severity of the crimes,” Sergeant Kelly said. “They are more dangerous than COVID-19.” 

Pushing back against calls for more releases from the jail, the sheriff’s office has started highlighting cases in which detainees who were released as part of the COVID-19 effort to reduce jail crowding went on to commit new crimes

Some jail detainees say those cases aren’t representative of the majority of people behind bars. The sheriff’s office also has not made data on recidivism rates publicly available, therefore it’s impossible to determine whether the COVID-19 release efforts have led to repeat offenses that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred.

“They should let more people out, especially those who haven’t been found guilty,” said Duane Jackson, an Oakland resident who has been in the jail for six months. Jackson said many in the jail are awaiting arraignment or pretrial hearings and are afraid they’ll contract the virus before they have their day in court. Even if they don’t die, they could be permanently harmed by the virus.

Jackson faces armed robbery charges to which he pleaded not guilty in December. He doesn’t know when his next hearing will be. A decision by the state Judicial Council to lengthen deadlines for arraignments, preliminary hearings and trials means pre-trial detainees now have to wait months for hearings that used to occur within a matter of weeks.

“Lots of us are still fighting our cases,” said Jackson. “At the end of the day, most of us in here didn’t do anything that was bad enough for us to die in here from a disease.”

Wayne lives in Housing Unit 6, D Pod and believes he was exposed to the virus while in the jail. He was booked into Santa Rita Jail in February 2019 and is awaiting trial on charges of robbery and assault.

The reason Wayne has been in jail for so long while waiting for his trial to begin—fifteen months and counting—is because he maintains his innocence and cannot afford to pay the $2.5 million in bail a judge applied to his case. In April 2019, he petitioned a superior court judge to grant him release but was denied. Last month, he was briefly housed in a cell next to Leonard Wakefield. He said he felt ill recently, but, like most inmates, hasn’t been tested.

“We clogged up like sardines in this county jail and the population is mostly African-American,” said Wayne. According to jail statistics, 48% of Santa Rita inmates are Black, 28% are Latino, and 16% are white. 

“My complaint is, why are we not given the opportunity to be released on own recognizance, or on an ankle monitor?” said Wayne.

What’s the real rate of infection in the jail?

As of last week, the sheriff’s COVID-19 website, updated daily, showed that only three Santa Rita detainees were suffering from COVID-19 infections while thirty other inmates who tested positive for the virus have “recovered” and three more inmates who contracted the virus in the jail have been released. The numbers appeared to show that the sheriff and Wellpath have the outbreak under control.

But those who remain in Santa Rita say the official numbers don’t reflect the reality of what they’re going through, and results from recently expanded testing in the jail support the detainees’ views about how widely the virus has spread behind bars.

Over the past weekend, 31 detainees in a specific part of the jail, Housing Unit 32, were all tested for COVID-19. None of the men were showing symptoms of an infection but they were categorized by the jail as code “yellow” inmates because they had previous exposure to someone who did test positive. Twelve of the 31 men’s results, which came back on Sunday, revealed they are infected with the virus.

“At the end of the day, most of us in here didn’t do anything that was bad enough for us to die in here from a disease.”

Until last week, the jail’s policy was to only test detainees who show specific COVID-19 symptoms. Under a new policy, all detainees in quarantined housing units are offered the option of a test.

The new results confirmed what some detainees have been saying for months: that many inmates in the jail without symptoms have the virus and are spreading it, and that the outbreak is wider than the sheriff has said it is.

Duane Jackson is one of the code yellow inmates who is living in Housing Unit 32 West, C Pod. He said he lost his sense of smell and taste two weeks ago, a possible COVID-19 symptom, but was denied a test at that time because he didn’t exhibit other symptoms. He’s shared a cell with several men who showed other symptoms. One of them, a federal inmate, shakes when he tries to stand up from his bunk bed and has lost control of his bowels several times. Another one of Jackson’s cellmates has an elevated fever and can’t smell or taste anything. Jackson said he doesn’t know if either man was tested for the coronavirus.

Housing Unit 32 is one of the jail’s large dormitories. Each cell can hold up to twenty prisoners. Men sleep on bunk beds that are two- to three-feet apart. All of the men in each cell have to share one phone, one shower, and two toilets. Some say they aren’t provided adequate cleaning supplies to keep shared surfaces disinfected.

“I could reach over and touch the man in the bed next to me,” said Jackson. “If somebody coughs or sneezes, everyone’s getting it.”

Jackson said testing is still voluntary, which could pose another problem for the jail as it tries to track the spread of the virus. All of the inmates Berkeleyside spoke with said the use of isolation “safety cells” to quarantine COVID-19-positive patients by themselves is leading to an undercount, and endangering inmates and guards because people don’t want to be placed inside these barren boxes.

“A lot of people are hiding their symptoms because they don’t want to go to isolation,” said Jackson.

Dwight Adams is another inmate who tested positive for COVID-19. He said in an interview that he has asthma and a heart murmur, and that over the past few weeks it sometimes hurts to talk. Jail medical records filed with Alameda County Superior Court court describe him as being “at high risk for COVID.”

Adams, who was booked into Santa Rita five months ago on charges of assault and carjacking, is currently quarantined in Housing Unit 8, C Pod, along with other “code red” inmates who either have the coronavirus or have symptoms and are awaiting test results. On April 27, the Alameda County Public Defender filed a motion seeking his immediate release, or a reduction in his bail to $100,000 or less, an amount he and his family can afford to pay. The motion is pending.

Adams believes the jail’s outbreak probably began in February, well before the sheriff said the virus entered the jail. “This is like early February, people started getting sick, people started getting headaches and flu symptoms,” said Adams. “Right after that, we found out a nurse had COVID up in here.”

The county announced on March 26 that a nurse employed by Wellpath had tested positive for the coronavirus. Since then, two other jail staff have also tested positive.

Adams said that by early March, he sensed that the virus was “going to spread like wildfire” in the jail. Like other inmates, he thinks the sheriff was too late in distributing personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

Before the pandemic, safety concerns and controversies over jail conditions

The COVID-19 outbreak in Santa Rita Jail is layered on top of pre-existing problems and controversies. Multiple incidents have come to light in recent years revealing problems in the jail, including in 2016 four deputies who were charged with assault for ordering one inmate to spray another with feces and urine. Called “gassing,” the attacks occur at higher rates in Santa Rita Jail than most other jails and prisons, according to the state auditor. In 2017, a pregnant woman gave birth alone in a jail cell. A group of women sued the jail in 2018, alleging that it treats female detainees poorly and denies them basic hygiene and healthcare supplies. 

Last year, a group of men filed a similar lawsuit alleging the sheriff provides substandard medical care and cataloging a long list of “unsanitary and inhumane conditions.” Over 300 inmates signed a “group grievance” last year calling on the sheriff to end the jail’s “culture of cruelty.”

“Most county jails don’t see the levels of deaths Santa Rita Jail does,” said Kara Janssen, an attorney with the Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld law firm.

Several years ago, Janssen was contacted by family members seeking help after their loved ones had died while in custody in Santa Rita. Most of those cases, she said, were suicides. There were about 45 deaths at the jail over a five-year period, said Janssen.

In 2018, Janssen and three colleagues filed a lawsuit against the sheriff on behalf of all inmates, alleging that Santa Rita is grossly understaffed, poorly managed, and doesn’t provide adequate mental health support for prisoners.

Recently, three independent experts filed reports with the U.S. District Court Judge overseeing the lawsuit. Although the reports don’t directly address the COVID-19 pandemic, they do reveal ongoing problems at the jail and corroborate some of the complaints made by inmates. The experts concluded that the jail is severely understaffed, that mental health services are severely limited, and that inmates are isolated in cells for lengthy periods of time.

Based on these reports, in April the sheriff requested a budget increase of $104 million annually from the County Board of Supervisors to hire an additional 349 deputies and other staff, and 107 behavioral healthcare workers. The request would amount to a 24% increase in the sheriff’s total annual budget.

Some are skeptical about whether the sheriff needs more money to improve safety in Santa Rita. A coalition of groups has called instead for an audit of the sheriff’s spending.

“Adequately staffing the jail with the bodies you need to operate it is different from a blank check to the sheriff,” said Janssen. “Our staffing analysis looked only at the positions needed at the jail. They didn’t look at the budget or audit the current spending, so it’s reasonable for community groups to ask questions about the amount of money being thrown around.”

In early March, U.S. District Court Judge Nathanael Cousins, who is presiding over the lawsuit, decided to use the court proceedings as a means of monitoring Santa Rita Jail’s COVID-19 response. Since then, the judge has held several telephone conferences with the sheriff and Janssen and her colleagues to discuss ways to limit the spread of the coronavirus in the jail.

“I think it’s been very helpful in terms of transparency,” Janssen said.

Janssen and her colleagues have used the telephone conferences to push for more COVID-19 testing in the jail and more releases.

“The main thing is getting out of this county jail”

Troy Powell was transferred to Santa Rita from the California Medical Facility state prison in Vacaville on January 30 so that he could attend a resentencing hearing. In 2011, Powell was sentenced to 27 years to life for the murder of a Fremont pawnshop owner after one of Powell’s accomplices shot and killed the owner during a robbery. According to court records, Powell was not armed with a gun during the robbery, but under California’s felony murder rule, he was tried and convicted of homicide. Last year, state lawmakers repealed the rule, allowing people like Powell to petition for a new sentence.

Powell’s March 13 court date was cancelled. Now, he doesn’t know when he’ll have a chance to see a judge. He wants to return to state prison in Vacaville because he believes the conditions there are safer.

“The main thing is getting out of this county jail,” Powell said. “If you don’t have a mask on there, they’ll write you up. Here, it’s like they don’t care.” He said mask usage has been lax among both inmates and deputies.

Powell is currently in Housing Unit 6, D Pod, along with Eric Wayne. Inmates in this part of the jail are let out of their cells into the pod for much of the day, where they can watch TV or read newspapers.

Powell has passed some of the time writing. On April 7, he sent a letter to the court asking that his resentencing hearing be expedited so that he can return to state prison. “I fear if I get the COVID-19 with my weak immune system, I will not recover,” he wrote.

On a recent afternoon, Wayne said inmates in the pod were watching the NFL draft. A few days earlier, they’d watched Oprah Winfrey discuss the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the Black community. Detainees sat on benches next to each other near the TV, finding it impossible to socially distance themselves.

Wayne and Powell said the jail desperately needs more cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment, and that many more inmates need to be tested. But the only way to prevent the further spread of the virus behind bars, and to prevent deaths, Wayne said, is to let more detainees go free.

“You’re going to have to release way more people,” Wayne said.

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Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and...