Civil rights activists blast coronavirus outbreaks at Santa Rita Jail

DUBLIN, CA - APRIL 5: An officer checks on prisoners at Santa Rita Jail on Thursday, April 5, 2018, in Dublin, CA. (Photo by Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A group of civil rights activists and attorneys are blasting at least three coronavirus outbreaks at Santa Rita Jail and they are blaming overcrowding and inadequate testing for the problem.

The group, "Decarcerate Alameda County," aired its grievances at a news conference on Monday regarding the growing COVID-19 cases.

On Dec. 23, active COVID-19 cases in Santa Rita Jail increased from 5 to 53 – a 1020% increase overnight, and now, weeks later, cases are up to 76, the group pointed out. And these two spikes follow another large coronavirus spike in July.

Santa Rita is not unique. Many jails and prisons throughout the state are experiencing virus outbreaks, alongside the rest of California and portions of the country.

But the activists want more to be done. 

In an October letter to the board of supervisors, the group, comprised of the Ella Baker Center and the National Laywers Guild, demanded a state takeover of the jail, better testing and medical care, and the release of more eligible inmates, among other demands. 

In an email, Alameda County Sheriff's Sgt. Ray Kelly said," Santa Rita Jail has done an outstanding job in managing the pandemic under very difficult circumstances. The health and safety of those in custody remains our utmost priority. We continue to work with our justice partners to keep the population at a safe level and to make sure we balance all public safety and public health concerns." 

In light of a federal lawsuit and court order, the Sheriff's Office has hired a consultant to inspect Santa Rita Jail for its coronavirus protocol. Over several visits, the consultant has found that deputies and inmates are now, for the most part, wearing masks and have improved the virus protocol inside the jail. But he still had concerns about a percentage of inmates refusing to get tested. 

Also in October, the sheriff also formed a COVID compliance unit, which the consultant called a "welcome addition" to the Santa Rita staffing model. 

At the news conference, National Lawyers Guild legal aid worker Lina Garcia Schmidt said she's concerned that the sheriff has simply limited its testing of incarcerated people - to just about 10% of the population - and therefore is blind to the positive cases that actually exist in the jail. 

She also said she continues to hear from incarcerated people who tell her that they are not seeing that masks are being worn on a consistent level.

Civil rights attorney Yolanda Huang said it's crucial to keep the sheriff and the jail more accountable because the board of supervisors told her it's not in their control. 

A request to the board of supervisors was not immediately returned. 

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez