Litigators write letter responding to recent Santa Barbara County Jail staff COVID-19 cases


The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office announced on June 18 that nine jail custody staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, and that the office is awaiting test results for nine additional staff members who experienced symptoms, according to a press release.

WHO TO TEST: The Santa Barbara County Jail announced that it would test all jail staff for COVID-19 after finding an outbreak among jail custody staff members. - FILE PHOTO
  • WHO TO TEST: The Santa Barbara County Jail announced that it would test all jail staff for COVID-19 after finding an outbreak among jail custody staff members.
The nine infected staff members include four civilian staff who don’t have contact with inmates and five custody deputies. One of those custody deputies does have contact with inmates, but the press release states that the person didn’t work after showing symptoms. The staff members showing symptoms are awaiting their test results from home.

According to the release, the jail is going to have all remaining staff tested for COVID-19 in response to the new outbreak. But Aaron Fischer, a member of a team of litigators who filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Santa Barbara County Jail inmates in December 2017, believes it’s not enough.

“What’s missing in that news release is they are not expanding testing for the people incarcerated. That’s a really serious problem,” Fischer told New Times. “If you’re going to expand testing for the community, which is the right thing to do, and you’re going to expand staff, which is the right thing to do, it’s also the right thing to implement a robust testing system for folks incarcerated in jail.”

Raquel Zick, public information officer for the Sheriff’s Office, said in an email that “inmates are tested based on CDC guidelines.”

In response to the new staff outbreak, Fischer co-wrote a letter to the Office of County Counsel on June 19. The letter asked that county agencies respond to these developments, with a particular emphasis on inmates “with disabilities, medical conditions, and other factors that place them at elevated risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19, with an awareness of the disproportionate impacts on people of color.”

Fischer said that the jail incarcerates a disproportionate number of people of color when compared to the community at large, with about 60 percent of all inmates being Black or Hispanic in 2018, according to data from 2nd District County Supervisor Gregg Hart’s office. But of those who have been identified as being at a high-risk for severe illness or death from COVID-19, he said, people of color are even more disproportionately affected.

As class counsel, Fischer and his team have access to a list of the 97 people incarcerated in the county jail who are considered to be at this level of high health risk (about 15 percent of the jail population). Of those people, 76 percent are either black or Latino, Fischer’s letter states.

The letter also addresses the statewide zero bail policy, which is slated to expire on June 20. Several California counties have announced a policy extension in the last couple of days. Santa Barbara County isn’t one of those counties, Fischer noted.

Overall demands of the letter include releasing as many individuals as possible, with an emphasis on those who have the highest risk of serious complications from COVID-19; mass testing of the incarcerated population; extending the zero bail policy; and “an updated list of class members with risk factors for severe COVID-19 illness.”

Public Information Officer Zick said that the jail’s population was at 574 as of June 19, down from a daily average population of around 900 from before the pandemic.

“A lot of good work has been done by the Sheriff’s Office and the county to try and address the terrible risk of the pandemic at the jail,” Fischer said. “We need to continue that and not do anything that’s going to undermine the good work that’s been done.” ∆

—Malea Martin

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