By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Citing overcrowding and the latest COVID-19 outbreak, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office announced Jan. 13 it would grant early release to 203 inmates from its two main jail facilities.

Spokesperson Sgt. Rod Grassman confirmed the outbreak and the emergency releases, scheduled to begin that day, at a new conference. Sgt. Grassman, citing the Omicron variant as the driver, said there were 76 positive cases at the main jail downtown and 48 positive cases at the Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center (RCCC) facility in Elk Grove. A week earlier, officials listed 27 positive cases at the main jail and none at RCCC.

Sgt. Grassman said newly intaken inmates are tested, but that it can take days for COVID-19 infection to present.

“As you can see, you can have an introduction of COVID very easily in the jail,” he said.

County public health officials said they were actively working to identify the source and mitigate transmission.

County Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye said the transmission pattern in the jails mimics that occurring in the community. “This Omicron variant is very contagious and easily spread from person to person,” she said.

Confirmed cases in the latest outbreak are from intake quarantine, inmate workers, and close contact testing, Dr. Kasirye said. Activists and advocates with groups such as the Greater Sacramento NAACP and Decarcerate Sacramento have called for continued releases since the pandemic began. An earlier release occurred in January 2021 after an outbreak then.

The groups have been outspoken about things they’ve heard from incarcerated people and their loved ones about conditions inside the jails. Some report hearing of inmates having to wear dirty face coverings for extended periods, and of infected individuals being refused medical treatment and placed in the same housing spaces with those uninfected.

“People incarcerated in Sacramento County jails continue to be denied access to soap, toilet paper and disinfectant,” said Jael Barnes of Decarcerate Sacramento. “When incarcerated people test positive, they are often put in ‘quarantine’ with little to no medical attention.”

Some 2,000 inmates are in the downtown jail and 1,400 at RCCC, according to Sgt. Grassmann. The facilities together, he said, are housing 331 inmates who should be “somewhere else” but aren’t because transfers to state prisons and hospitals have been halted by the pandemic.

“We’ve got 400 people more than we would normally have,” he said. “If those 400 people were in the care of the facilities where they should be, we would not have to do any releases.”

Those who will be released are convicted and not awaiting court dates. They have 90 days or less remaining on their sentences and are considered less likely to reoffend. Those ineligible for early release include people convicted of domestic violence or who have restraining orders against them for domestic abuse; people with offenses for driving under the influence; people who are required to register on a sex offender registry upon release; and serious and violent felons.

“When we look at the folks that we’re going to release, we’re looking at their history in totality,” Sgt. Grassmann said. “Obviously, we don’t have a crystal ball to see what somebody might do, but we are trying to look at and minimize any problem that there might be after the release.”

‘We’ve Been Saying It All Along’

At the insistence of community organizations, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors in late October instructed Inspector General Mark Evanson to investigate the rise in COVID-19 cases in county jail facilities. Evanson spent a month reviewing current COVID-19 protocols and practices and released a report Dec. 2. It concluded that correctional health staff and the sheriff’s office “have been transparent and responsive in identifying potential problem areas and proactive in addressing the current outbreak.”

Greater Sacramento NAACP President Betty Williams called for an independent review, as the inspector general serves under the sheriff’s department. While there is no mention of accountability, the report validates community claims that the quarantine measures haven’t been strictly followed.

“Even with the overpopulation issue in mind, it is difficult to understand the decision to place potentially infected inmates in the same housing pod with those being quarantined,” it reads. “Though we may never know if this decision actually contributed to the outbreak, it was a poor decision that (shouldn’t be repeated).”

County health officials say there should be four quarantine pods — one for new arrivals, one for inmates exposed but who show no symptoms, a third for those who are symptomatic and await testing or test results, and another for those who tested positive. “This is about finding places for people to be,” Sgt. Grassman said. “In doing this release, we can create this space that we need to be able to do that. There’s no way around it at this point.”

According to the inspector general’s December report, the sheriff’s office had at that point already released approximately 70 people three days earlier than normal.

While local advocates applaud the recent action, they say releasing 5% of the jail population is woefully insufficient. They point to the 30% who were released during a 2020 outbreak.

“It points to a systemic failure by several county actors,” said Decarcerate Sacramento leader Mack Wilson.

“The response from Sheriff (Scott) Jones, county courts, and correctional health has been grossly inadequate every step of the way and has led to immeasurable physical and mental harm and preventable deaths,” Wilson said, who also cited the district attorney’s office and Sacramento Police Department as complicit in “willingly filling up the jails, prioritizing tough-on-crime politics over public health.”

Justice2Jobs Coalition Co-founder Lynn Berkley-Baskin called the latest outbreak “entirely predictable.”

“Two years into the pandemic, people housed in the jails are still not provided with adequate sanitation supplies and (personal protective equipment),” she said.

Berkley-Baskin, who also serves on the Greater Sacramento NAACP’s executive committee said the county’s reduction of its jail population by about a third early in the pandemic came only under community pressure. She said releases have tapered and called 203 a “token number” that reflects a nod to political pressure, not compassion or a sense of accountability for the well-being of the incarcerated and their families.

Decarcerate Sacramento is demanding the jail population be cut in half, with priority going to the medically vulnerable and said such inmates should have access to reentry resources that don’t involve law enforcement. Berkeley-Baskin agreed that a more compassionate, and more effective, approach is needed.

“Instead of filling our jails with people who are detained or awaiting trial, nearly 80% of jail population, and those with mental health and related issues that cannot effectively be addressed in a carceral setting, we could reduce recidivism by providing needed care and treatment and helping to invest and restore our most economically impacted communities,” she said.