By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

While the cases are higher at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove, the Main Jail in downtown Sacramento is also concerning members of the community. (Photo by Russell Stiger Jr., OBSERVER).

As a new variant comes into play, community activists are still looking for answers following a recent outbreak of COVID-19 at two local jail facilities.

An outbreak was reported on October 18 and the numbers quickly rose to concerning levels. 

Greater Sacramento NAACP President Betty Williams has been vocal on the issue of COVID-19 conditions at the Sacramento County Main Jail downtown and the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center (RCCC) facility in Elk Grove. Williams says she’s gotten reports indicating the number of positive cases being as high as 600 during the outbreak. 

Sacramento County Health Services Director Chevon Kothari places the number of cases far below that.

“In terms of the total number of confirmed cases that we had to date between mid-October and now, we have not had over 300 cases. That includes not only cases associated with the outbreak, but also cases that came in off the street, not associated with the outbreak,” she said.

According to Kothari, just three cases constitute an outbreak.

“Red flags go up. If we were to see three new people booked into the jail, we wouldn’t necessarily consider that an outbreak,” she said. “It’s three cases where we think transmission has occurred within a set, that’s where we consider it an outbreak.”

The good news, Kothari says, is that the outbreak appears to be waning. 

As of December 1, the County listed the number of inmates with COVID-19 at 33, with four being housed at the main jail and 29 at RCCC. As of Nov. 29, the number of “total linked cases” were 41 at the main jail and 199 at RCCC.

“We’re continuing to quarantine, and isolation protocols are being put in place, including the separate housing units for folks who are COVID positive and non positive, routine testing, monitoring of symptoms, just to make sure that we’re keeping that under control,” she said.

With numbers jumping dramatically of late, members of the community are concerned that protocols aren’t being adhered to.

Something is wrong, Williams said.

But Kothari says in any congregate setting where people are in close proximity, there will always be a risk of the virus spreading quickly.

“Part of the reason is, I could be, for instance, walking around with COVID and not be symptomatic, so we weren’t testing everybody every day. When you come into the jail, you certainly do get tested, but if you contract it in the jail, you don’t necessarily get tested if you don’t have symptoms,” she said. 

Kothari explained that the COVID outbreak led them to do more routine testing, including on folks who weren’t symptomatic, if they suspected they may have come in contact with an infected person.

Community advocates like the NAACP say they’ve heard stories of inmates having to reuse disposable masks for extended periods of time. The group Decarcerate Sacramento and families with loved ones behind bars have also said they’ve received accounts of punitive placement, where those who complain about conditions or treatment get placed in cells with people who have tested positive for COVID-19.

The County Board of Supervisors said they would ask the Inspector General ​Mark Evenson to look into claims that poor conditions and lack of protocol follow-through led to the outbreak. Williams scoffed at that, saying she didn’t trust Evenson to do it right.

“He comes straight from the Sheriff’s Department,” Williams said. “The fact that he has the word ‘independent’ attached to his title is ludicrous to me. I expect him to find whatever the sheriff wants him to find.”

Williams urges inmates and families to continue sharing “intel from inside.”

According to her, officials don’t seem open to reducing jail numbers as they did earlier on in the pandemic. The NAACP has been advocating for the removal of nonviolent offenders to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, and Williams says her team is still working with the Public Defender’s Office to collectively come up with a solution.

“I use examples like the light rail station. There are people in jail for tickets for the light rail, [for] not paying. Nine times out of 10, it’s going to be dismissed or they will begin with some type of fine, but they’re in a cesspool right now,” she said. “That’s one of many low-level cases that I’m saying should be removed.”

The County lists only one COVID death during the outbreak.

“That’s the only death related to COVID during the whole pandemic,” Kothari said.

However, during a recent press conference outside the County Board of Supervisors meeting, Decarcerate Sacramento leader Courtney Hanson read a statement from a local Black woman, Jasmine Stevens, who believes her husband William Francis Stevens’ February 16 death was due to COVID, not a health condition as it was deemed.

Kothari said she’s heard such assertions in the media.

“We looked into that and it was not somebody who was COVID-positive. It was for a different reason,” she said.

“Sometimes what happens is folks will become COVID positive at some point, and then weeks or months later, they do end up passing due to other circumstances. Sometimes people think that the COVID did contribute to the death, even though the person maybe didn’t die of COVID. I don’t want to argue against that. I certainly think something like COVID is significant enough where it does decrease your immune system and your ability to fight things off.” 

Kothari added, “I am not the coroner, so I don’t put cause of death on the [death] certificate. But I will say that I could see one’s argument when they say, ‘Hey, my loved one had COVID and then a month later, they passed away from something else and they wouldn’t have died if they didn’t have COVID.’ ”

Williams says the elderly man who died of COVID on October 25 was African American. She’s concerned with the overall health and wellbeing of inmates at the two jail facilities. She points to one inmate she recently visited.

“His family reached out to me because he had all these health issues, he’s diabetic, has high blood pressure and he wasn’t getting any of his medication and he was afraid he was gonna die in jail, so I actually went to see him,” Williams shared. “When I talked to him, he put his leg up on the ledge so I could see how big it was. It was 10 times the normal size because it was filled with fluid. He hadn’t received medication in almost three weeks.” 

Williams said she left the gentleman and went straight to the captain of the jail.

“He got his medication immediately. They were telling me they didn’t know, but yes, you did know. The family was advocating for him,” she said.

“You’re creating underlying health issues,” Williams said of officials.

Inmate health is a part of a consent decree between the County and the jails. Kothari says she and her team have been working to get more resources and staff for proper medical care and mental health services, but often run up against space challenges.

“That’s something that is on the Board of Supervisors’ radar right now,” she said.

Williams maintains they’ve got to do better with a sense of urgency.

“With COVID running rampant inside your jail, which is going to destroy us and our community (and they’re) taking that virus back into our community, yet they don’t seem to care and that’s what worries me,” she said.