'Empty the cages:' activists urge San Mateo County Sheriff release inmates during coronavirus

An activist holds a sign that says "Empty the cages" outside a jail in San Mateo County. April 22, 2020

Criminal justice reform and immigrant rights advocates on Wednesday called on the San Mateo County Sheriff to empty all the jails as well as to stop the transfer of inmates to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The group, San Mateo County Coalition for Immigrant Rights, made their demands during a “COVID-19 safe car rally” outside the Maguire Correctional Facility in Redwood City.

The Bay Area News Group reported about 50 people in 25 cars took part. People honked horns and waved signs that read "Empty the cages" and "Free them all." 

“Jails, prisons, and detention centers have never been safe or healthy places for our beloved community members,” said Kathy Reyes, a former inmate and public health worker. “Sheriff Bolanos needs to stop ICE transfers and rapidly decarcerate now.”

A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office did not immediately provide a comment on the group’s demands, BANG reported.

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County courts and sheriffs have been reducing their jail populations since Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in early March. As of this week, the Maguire Correctional Facility held 260 inmates, down from 486 on Feb. 29, and the Maple Street Correctional Center held 275 inmates, down from 483 on Feb. 29, according to the sheriff’s office.

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Last month, the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office agreed to the release of all inmates with 60 days or less of their sentences left to serve. Another 130 were to be released this month under a new rule that sets bail at $0 for misdemeanors and most non-violent felonies. Prosecutors, in general, have been open to releasing certain inmates, but have wanted to ensure the public's safety by not letting people out who they think would be a danger to society. 

No inmates in San Mateo County have tested positive for COVID-19, but two deputies have contracted the virus.

Other jails and prisons in California have released inmates too. Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, for example, has given 846 inmates early release during the outbreak. The jail population now stands at 1,751. The sheriff there reported that of 15 inmate coronavirus cases, all have recovered. 

Maguire Correctional Facility in Redwood City.

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The activists on Wednesday also made requests to the sheriff to end all transfers to ICE. In 2018, the sheriff’s office handed over 51 inmates, according to the group.

The group alleges inmates who are transferred often end up in crowded and unsanitary detention facilities hundreds of miles away from their families, usually in Bakersfield or Yuba County. Such conditions, the group says, are ripe for the rapid spread of the virus.

California's Attorney General, the ACLU and the San Francisco Public Defender all have been urging the same thing: Release more ICE detainees to avoid the spread of the coronavirus infection.

ICE's website touts sanitary conditions and promises it hands all detainees soap and sanitizers. 

According to data compiled by this news organization, ICE has released 1.2% of its detainee population since March. 

A woman holds a "Free them all" sign in front of the Maguire Correctional Facility in Redwood City. April 22, 2020

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