A group of attorneys filed a class action lawsuit on May 29 against Sheriff Gregory Ahern of Alameda County, California. The lawsuit concerns health conditions and COVID-19 at the Santa Rita Jail, a 3,500-capacity facility in Dublin, just south of Oakland, that is one of the largest jails in the United States.
The attorneys want to force Sheriff Ahern to release all medically vulnerable people from the jail, and in rare instances to transfer some to house arrest. They are seeking coronavirus testing for all at-risk people in the jail, and quarantine and other protective measures for those with the virus. The lawsuit also asks a judge to compel the sheriff to identify all medically at-risk people, and to explain his reasoning.
“Many of the individuals in the Santa Rita Jail and other county jails across California are in serious danger of contracting this disease simply because they cannot afford bail,” said Nina J. Ginsberg of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “[We are] concerned about all individuals at risk of contracting COVID-19 because of the conditions at facilities like the Santa Rita Jail. The disparate impact that COVID-19 is having on poor communities and communities of color is undeniable and alarming.”
About three-quarters of people held at Santa Rita Jail are in pre-trial detention: In other words, they have not convicted of a crime and should be presumed innocent. The state of California ended cash bail for low-level offenses in April, but the reforms don’t apply to all misdemeanor or felony charges. The jail also holds about 400 people in federal pretrial detention. The local US Attorney’s Office has repeatedly opposed efforts to release people.
Local media reports have drawn a stark contrast between how the sheriff claims to be handling coronavirus in the jail, and what people locked inside are saying. “We ain’t given no cleaning supplies, the showers smell like piss, and they keep submitting all this false information to the public,” occupant Eric Wayne told Berkleyside in early May.
Other incarcerated people the reporters spoke to said the jail had inadequate supplies of basic hygiene equipment like soap, hand sanitizer and face masks. Most agreed that the rate of coronavirus infection behind bars was far higher than the sheriff had officially reported. Sheriff Ahern countered that areas in the jail were constantly being cleaned and sanitized, and that hygiene supplies were plentiful. He argued that no one in the jail had died yet, and so they must be doing a good job.
The jail currently holds over 1,700 people, well below capacity, and 800 have been released since March 1. Most of them were elderly, had pre-existing conditions, were arrested on nonviolent or misdemeanor charges, or had almost completed their sentences. As of May 24, 52 cases of coronavirus had officially been reported at the jail. Before the pandemic, the jail notoriously had the highest number of deaths behind bars in the region—and an even higher death rate than Los Angeles County, which has the nation’s largest jail system.
The lawsuit in Alameda County is just the latest in a series of efforts around the US to release people from jails and prisons to protect them from COVID-19. Members of Congress have joined criminal justice activists to demand that people be released from federal prison in New York. And beyond prisons and jails, immigration rights activists have urged the same for people held in immigrant detention.