San Diego County sheriff orders lockdown in all jails amid surge in coronavirus cases
A new crush of coronavirus cases is running through San Diego County jails, infecting inmates and staff alike and prompting a systemwide lockdown to try to control the spread of the virus.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department said a total of 125 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus in the last week. Officials are awaiting results for an additional 188 people.
Two inmates died this week in county jails, and the outbreak is suspected, sources told the San Diego Union-Tribune. The Sheriff’s Department said their deaths are under investigation.
They are the 15th and 16th deaths in Sheriff’s Department custody so far this year, which ties the deadliest years in the county’s jails over the last decade.
Officials said Gumercindo Aldava Alamos, 72, was found unresponsive in his Vista jail cell about 3 p.m. Wednesday.
“Deputies and medical staff immediately performed lifesaving measures until relieved by fire department personnel,” the Sheriff’s Department said in a news release. “Unfortunately, Alamos was pronounced dead at the facility.”
Robert Dwayne Moniger, 57, died at the Central Jail on Saturday, the department said.
Sources said another inmate remains gravely ill with COVID-19.
Also, two nurses in Vista and a pair of deputies from the South Bay Detention Facility have been infected in recent days, sources said.
“Due to an abundant amount of positive inmate cases, and to keep everyone safe, all jails are now in a full system lockdown,” Capt. Kyle Bibel told the jail’s senior medical staff and others in an email Thursday morning.
“All staff (sworn and professional) are required to wear N-95 masks in all areas of the facility,” Bibel wrote. “All medical appointments will continue but expect movement to slow down. Sworn staff will be required to resume temperature checks in quarantine modules as they have done in the past.”
The systemwide shutdown means inmates are kept inside their cells for up to 23 hours a day. They also are not able to visit with friends and relatives or defense attorneys representing them in court.
More than 80% of people incarcerated in San Diego County jail have yet to be convicted of the crime for which they were arrested. They are unable to make bail or are awaiting trial.
The Sheriff’s Department said in a statement that most of the people who have tested positive for the coronavirus have no symptoms or mild symptoms, although three patients are in the hospital being treated for COVID-19.
As a result of the outbreak, all social visits will be temporarily suspended beginning Friday, the Sheriff’s Department said.
All newly arrested people will be quarantined for seven days, and contact tracing is being implemented to identify staff and inmates at risk, officials said. Anyone testing positive is isolated for two weeks.
The department also said it is doing everything it can to protect staff and inmates, including providing appropriate protective gear, sanitizing cells regularly and employing other tactics to keep the virus from spreading.
“The safety, security, health and well-being of the people in our custody, as well as the deputies and employees who care for them, will always be a priority for the Sheriff’s Department,” the department said in the statement.
Rank-and-file deputies who work inside the county’s seven jails said they are concerned about the broadening spread of the virus and a persistent staffing shortage that forces them to work extra shifts.
“We’re trying to do our best on the line with what we have,” said one deputy who did not want to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to reporters.
The latest rash of coronavirus cases has pushed the total number of infected inmates to 2,003 as of Nov. 27, the latest date for which data have been provided by the Sheriff’s Department.
Department officials previously acknowledged two jail deaths related to COVID-19, but advocates and family members of deceased prisoners say the virus has killed at least three other people.
Employees have not escaped the virus’ reach. As of Nov. 19, the most recent date for which jail employee data have been provided, more than 900 employees have been infected, the Sheriff’s Department said, including two deaths.
The reported infections have largely been concentrated in two facilities: the Men’s Central Jail downtown and the George Bailey Detention Facility in Otay Mesa.
Both jails are over capacity, according to the Sheriff’s Department records.
According to an update Wednesday, 41 inmates with COVID-19 were housed at the Central Jail, which held 973 inmates, according to department records. The rated capacity for the downtown facility is 944.
The George Bailey facility has seen almost 800 infections in total but had just three active cases Wednesday, the department said. The Otay Mesa jail’s rated capacity is 1,380, but the inmate population was 1,469 this week.
Department officials did not respond to questions about whether overcrowding at the two largest county jails might have contributed to the escalating number of infections.
The infection rates continue to climb even as the department books fewer inmates.
In recent years, the county’s seven-facility jail system housed up to 5,500 people every day. The average daily population has since declined to about 4,200 because new booking practices designed to protect minor offenders were implemented in the early months of the pandemic.
Lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union, who sued Sheriff Bill Gore this year over his department’s response to the ongoing coronavirus threat, said they were not surprised more inmates are getting sick and dying.
“Overcrowded, unsanitary conditions in jails make it impossible for people to take basic precautions against the spread of COVID-19, like social distancing,” staff attorney Jonathan Markovitz said. “And yet Sheriff Gore has refused to exercise his statutory duty to maintain safe population levels, allowing several of the jail facilities to become dangerously overcrowded.”
Markovitz said the newest run of COVID-19 infections in county jails gives more urgency to the lawsuit, which seeks to force the Sheriff’s Department to reduce the jail population by releasing more minor and nonviolent offenders and by vaccinating more detainees.
According to department records, the majority of people booked into San Diego County jails turn down offers to be vaccinated.
Since the department began offering vaccines during the booking process earlier this year, just over 19,000 people have been asked but fewer than 4,100 have agreed, officials said. Over the week ending last Saturday, only 39 of 345 arrestees agreed to be vaccinated, or 11%.
The conditions inside the jails have some inmates worried for their safety.
“There is no access to hygiene for months on end as we are held in quarantine due to the constant influx of COVID-positive inmates,” one detainee told the Union-Tribune. “Hygiene is being denied by the deputies and medical personnel by policy.”
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