By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Local activist Khalil Ferguson and others are calling on officials to tell the truth about the impact of COVID-19 in county jail facilities. Jameel Pugh, OBSERVER 

A group of local community activists are calling out officials, saying an outbreak of COVID-19 in two county jail facilities is far worse than they’re letting on. 

“We are not hearing the long, uncut version of what is really happening in the jail,” said Jael Barnes, a pretrial justice organizer with the organization Decarcerate Sacramento. 

For her, it’s personal. Her husband Jamaine has been behind bars at the county jail since being arrested on a drug charge May 17, 2019. He hasn’t been to court in his case since Oct. 31, 2019. The activist is scared for her husband, who currently has COVID — his second bout with the deadly virus.

Decarcerate Sacramento hosted a press conference outside the County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. County health officials reported last week that 69 individuals at the Sacramento County Main Jail and the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center (RCCC) have COVID-19.

Organizers say that number isn’t an accurate account of the full COVID-19 picture in the jails.

 “The conditions are horrific,” Barnes said. “Despite what they have told us, they have no real plan to keep these folks safe. My husband went into that facility with nothing other than severe anxiety, but now he has asthma. He has contracted COVID twice. He has COVID as we speak and is vaccinated, but is still sick due to breathing problems.”

Her husband, she says, has had to “practically beg” to be tested and was moved to solitary confinement while sick, not a medical unit.

“My husband asked the officer for a mattress when he came in and the officer said no, because they didn’t want him contaminating another bed. They are without cleaning products still, right now and they have to reuse their masks. It’s scary to think what could happen to him or anyone’s loved ones in there.

“Our 5-year-old son said just recently, ‘I hope my dad doesn’t die…’ I have been in contact with dozens of people on the inside and their families and they all are scared that this just might be a death sentence for their loved ones.”

After stating that there had been no COVID related deaths within the facilities, Sacramento County Health Services on Monday said they were notified by correctional staff that an elderly man died after being hospitalized Oct. 25.

“The inmate was a 76-year-old male who was being treated for long-term significant and multiple underlying health conditions,” read the statement. “While hospitalized, he tested positive for COVID.  He was vaccinated in June 2021 while in custody.”

Public health officials had previously stated that all the recent cases were among those who have not been vaccinated, a claim that families are pushing back on. 

“Contrary to official county reports and recent media coverage of the outbreak, many who have contracted COVID-19 so far are in fact fully vaccinated,” said Khalil Ferguson of the Justice2Jobs Coalition.

Activists say public health officials are simply regurgitating unvetted information provided to them by the Sheriff’s Department and that’s part of the problem. 

Ferguson spoke of William Francis Stevens, a Black man who died Feb. 16 while incarcerated at the county jail.  “Before he died, he told his wife that he asked medical staff for information and care at least 10 times with no response,” Ferguson shared.

Decarcerate Sacramento organizer Courtney Hanson read a statement from the man’s wife, Jasmine Stevens.

“The coroner’s trying to say that my husband died from complications to his heart, which I feel is a complete lie,” reads the letter from Mrs. Stevens. ”He died from COVID-19, which gave him complications with his heart. I know for a fact that my husband tested positive and he was not having his medical conditions met in that horrible place.” 

Stevens said another inmate who had tested positive for COVID was placed in a room with her husband.  

“I think it is disgusting to knowingly put someone’s health at risk. It is a complete violation of all human decency. And my husband wasn’t the only one. That place was infected with an outbreak of COVID-19. And it is unconscionable how these people are trying to cover it up,” the statement continued.

Advocates and activists called on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors to intervene and put pressure on the Sheriff’s Department.

“This is a public health crisis and we need all hands on deck,” Ferguson said. “The people inside the jail for legal counsel, the Sheriff’s Department, the district attorney and the courts should be working collaboratively to protect the rights and dignity of people awaiting trial during a pandemic. People’s lives are in the balance.”

“The board of supervisors should use their power and platform to shine a light on this urgent and life-threatening crisis that is affecting thousands of incarcerated constituents and their families,” said Dr. Corrine McIntosh-Saco of the Mobilize for Mental Health Coalition. “They should direct the Sheriff’s Department to stop the spread of COVID and save lives by ordering emergency releases like they did in June 2020.”

Dr. McIntosh-Saco and others pointed out that doing so lowered the jail population by 30% and helped decrease cases at the time.

After a report from county health officials and hours of hearing public comment on the issue, the board of supervisors agreed to ask the inspector general to look into the outbreak.