May 25th, 2022 • Aparna Komarla, Covid In-Custody Project
In California jails, sheriffs have been left in charge of COVID mitigation. The results have been disastrous.
This blog post was authored by Aparna Komarla, Founder and Director of the Covid In-Custody Project. The Covid In-Custody Project conducts quantitative and qualitative investigative journalism on the pandemic’s impact on California’s state prisons and county jails. For more on its work, visit the Covid In-Custody Project website.
Throughout the pandemic, health officials have taken a backseat in addressing the COVID pandemic in county jails. Rather than intervening with their subject expertise and relying on legal authorities, both local and state health departments have generally instead left the management of the historic public health crisis to local sheriffs.
While county sheriffs may have experience in law enforcement, they are ill-suited for this public health role. But because health departments have largely declined to set and enforce COVID mitigation measures for jails, even while doing so in other congregate settings like schools and restaurants, sheriffs have been the ones left in charge.
In California, public health officials tasked with protecting the health and safety of all residents have largely taken this hands-off approach. The state’s health department has been notably absent, failing to require sheriffs’ offices to take basic COVID mitigation measures that they have required of other high-risk settings.
In the wake of the state’s inaction, some Bay Area health departments have stepped up to require their local sheriffs’ staffs to undergo surveillance testing or get vaccinated. These county-level interventions, however, have been the exception and not the rule. Further, that they have been necessary at all demonstrates the failures of the larger and more well-resourced state public health department to lead effective and coordinated public health responses that protect vulnerable populations from the virus.
Staff Vaccination Mandates
When the lead state public health official in California mandated vaccination for workers in high-risk congregate settings in February 2022, he conspicuously excluded correctional officers. While other orders mandated vaccination for correctional medical staff and some correctional officers who work in the health care settings of jails or prisons, 1 his most wide-reaching order, targeting those who work in “high-risk settings where COVID-19 transmission and outbreaks can have severe consequences for vulnerable populations,” excluded the sheriff’s office staff.
As a result, counties were given the option of whether or not to implement their own local mandates for correctional employees, or whether to leave it up to sheriffs to require vaccination from their staff.
In the absence of a statewide mandate, local public health departments in two counties – Santa Clara and San Francisco – put out their own mandates requiring correctional staff in these two jurisdictions to be vaccinated and boosted by March 1, 2022.
In Santa Clara County, as of February 2022, 80% of sheriff’s office employees and 74% of those working in county jails had received vaccinations and boosters. It appears that the agency is on track to achieving full compliance, as the remaining 20% includes those who are not yet eligible for the booster or are on extended leave. We are still awaiting more updated data from the sheriff’s office.
In San Francisco County, however, the sheriff’s office has not disclosed its vaccination rate, 2 and our public records request for this data has been pending since December 2021. In our last correspondence with the sheriff’s office, we were promised a response on or before February 20, 2022, but have still not received one.
Many counties, however, have opted not to implement their own vaccination mandate for correctional staff. In Alameda County, for example, the director of the public health department stated that she is not interested in mandating vaccinations or boosters for the sheriff’s office. Only 67% of Santa Rita Jail staff of 1,212 are fully vaccinated 3 and just 76 employees in the entire sheriff’s office have received a booster. 4 In Sacramento County, the lead public health officer similarly stated that her office does not plan to issue any mandates for correctional staff.
Further, even though previous mandates from the state health department do cover some correctional staff – specifically correctional healthcare staff and non-medical sheriff’s office employees working in medical settings of prisons or jails – those orders fail to require proper oversight. Little is known about the sheriff’s or medical provider’s staff’s compliance with the vaccination mandate as neither the state nor the local health department monitors the vaccination data. Some counties, including Sacramento, have refused to share this data with the public, citing “medical privacy” as a reason.
Staff in correctional settings have been demonstrated to face significantly higher COVID infection risks than the general public. A study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, co-authored by the COVID Behind Bars Data Project, found that, in the first months of the pandemic, prison staff saw infection rates more than triple that of the U.S. population as a whole.
The limited data available has suggested that staff transmission has played a significant role in sparking outbreaks specifically in California correctional environments. Contact tracing has revealed that 50% of outbreaks in California’s prisons in early 2021 were linked to staff positives. Public health officials in Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail found a high probability that an outbreak in late 2020 of 120 active cases was triggered by an asymptomatic deputy.
Despite their increased vulnerability to infection, however, as well as their high likelihood of transmitting the virus between incarcerated populations and the outside population, the state health officer did not subject jail staff to mandatory testing until July 2021 – over a year into the pandemic. When the decision came, it was months after several counties, including Santa Clara, Alameda and San Francisco, had already issued such requirements.
Even once it was issued, the state’s surveillance testing order had three other critical limitations:
First, there is little, if any, public oversight over the sheriffs’ compliance with the mandate. The order contains no requirement that correctional facilities report testing or vaccination rates to either the state health department, local health department or the general public. 5 As a result, the public cannot know with accuracy whether and to what extent the order is being implemented.
When we have requested this data on our own, we have not always been able to obtain it. In Sacramento County, for example, our public records requests have been ignored or closed without a response. The county’s director for adult correctional health has stated that she does not know the testing rates of the sheriff’s staff. 6
Unless a sheriff elects to publish or report the data, then, the local sheriff’s office cannot be held accountable for potential non-compliance with the order.
Second, unlike the order issued by Alameda, San Francisco, and Santa Clara Counties, the state’s surveillance testing order exempted fully vaccinated jail staff from mandatory testing. As a result, breakthrough cases have been allowed to go undetected unless an employee gets tested by choice. Such breakthrough cases have been common: in January 2022, the Santa Clara County sheriff’s office reported that 90% of the 144 staff members in isolation with COVID were fully vaccinated.
Third, the state’s order was limited in its reach. Whereas the state required testing only of correctional staff, the Santa Clara County health officer’s order, which was issued eight months earlier than the state’s, required all county staff – from public defenders to probation staff – who enter jail facilities to be tested. The state could and should have done the same.
State public health officials have not only failed to require local sheriffs to combat COVID spread in jail facilities, but also to report to the public on its spread inside. To date, there is no statewide mandate for sheriffs who manage county jails to make COVID infection or testing data, for either incarcerated people or staff, publicly available.
The Board of State and Community Corrections (BSCC) has requested that sheriffs provide it with COVID data, but this request is not a requirement. While several counties participate in the BSCC’s data collection effort, many others do not.
Alameda, San Francisco, and Santa Clara are among the few counties that have chosen to provide both the BSCC and the public with regular data updates. But even these data reports are incomplete. They do not, for example, include vaccination rates of the incarcerated population or staff. To obtain this data, we must utilize the public records act or otherwise connect with public information officers in the sheriff’s office.
The lack of a comprehensive and accurate centralized data reporting system has made it impossible for public health officials and the general public alike to track COVID among the roughly 60,000 people in the state’s jails. In fact, this critical data gap was the motivation for the creation of the Covid In-Custody Project.
The pandemic has been a public health catastrophe in US jails, and California has been no exception. While proving the health dangers of overcrowding and incarceration, the vast spread of COVID in jails has also revealed the deadly costs of allowing sheriffs and criminal legal officials, with no background in public health, to make decisions about how to slow the spread of the virus in their facilities.
During the pandemic and beyond, it is critical that public health efforts in jails be managed by public health experts. State and county public health officers must exercise their authorities and be proactive by issuing mitigation and transparency mandates in a timely manner. Sheriffs cannot be left to police themselves.
It is also imperative that public health authorities monitor compliance with the mandates they do promulgate. Especially during a global health emergency, oversight and accountability are key, and are only possible with proper data transparency and reporting. It is not enough for public health authorities to simply require certain mitigation measures; they must also require data transparency on how those measures are being implemented.
An earlier order, issued on August 19, 2021, mandated vaccinations for all paid and unpaid individuals who provide health care services to incarcerated people, as well as employees providing non-medical care (e.g., clerical, dietary, janitorial services, laundry, correctional officers, facilities maintenance staff, administrative, inmate workers, and volunteer personnel) in medical areas within a correctional facility. The order was amended on February 22, 2022 to require boosters.
It is unclear how counties determine which correctional officers are subject to the vaccine mandate. In Alameda County, the county counsel determined that 11 sheriff’s office employees working in Highland Alameda County Hospital (HACH) and 7 working in Santa Rita Jail’s Out-Patient Housing Unit (OPHU) (18 out of roughly 1,200 jail staff) are required to comply.
In an email correspondence with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the director of communications stated “vaccines are required for all jail staff, so that number [vaccination rate] should be close to or at 100% or they would have been separated from the City.” However, we have not received a formal data report from the public health department or the sheriff’s office with the exact data.
Santa Rita Jail staff includes both the sheriff’s custody bureau (sworn and civilian custody staff) as well as sheriff’s office employees assigned to work at the jail on mandatory overtime assignments (non-permanent, non-custody staff).
There are 1,714 employees in the Alameda County sheriff’s office, of which 75.4% or 1,259 (680 sworn and 579 professional employees) are fully vaccinated as of April 29, 2022. Of the 680 fully vaccinated sworn employees, 34 have received a booster, 629 are booster eligible, and 17 are not booster eligible. Of the 579 fully vaccinated professional staff, 42 have received a booster, 531 are booster eligible, and 6 are not booster eligible.
Though there is no such requirement in place, there are examples of local public health officials expressing interest in monitoring the sheriff’s staff’s compliance with the testing mandate. For example, in a conference call on August 13, 2021 the director of Alameda County’s public health department stated that she would like to receive monthly reports from the sheriff on their compliance rates. But there is no evidence that this has occurred.
As of April 2022, the director of adult correctional health in Sacramento County has been providing monthly updates to the Public Health Advisory Board on vaccinations and boosters for correctional health care staff (medical, administrative and mental health staff). She has repeatedly stated, however, that she has no insight into testing or vaccination rates of the sheriff’s office.
June 14th, 2022 • Isabelle Geczy
In 2019, a bill was introduced in Nevada to comprehensively reform the state's geriatric parole system and allow more aging people out of prison. But following its implementation during pandemic, just six people were found eligible -- and zero received a parole hearing.