Infected Santa Rita inmate describes jail life amid COVID-19 outbreak

FILE ART - Santa Rita Jail in Dublin.

Gilbert Martinez, 41, is among the 100-plus Santa Rita Jail inmates who tested positive for coronavirus during an outbreak that started earlier this month in the facility's kitchen.

As of Friday, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office noted that 93 of the cases are "asymptomatic" and 11 inmates are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. That's not including the 12 current positive staff cases or Deputy Oscar Rocha, who died Thursday of the disease. Everyone from his family, to his colleagues, to the Public Defender remembered him as a dependable, loyal colleague. 

To date, only one inmate has been hospitalized because of coronavirus and he has since returned, according to the sheriff. No inmate has died because of disease. The numbers started escalating on July 9. Before that, there had only been six inmates who tested positive for coronavirus. 

What Martinez wants the public to know is that despite the "asymptomatic" label, he and his peers in Housing Unit 25 are experiencing physical signs that they're sick. Most of them feel like they have the flu, even if only one of them has a fever of 101 degrees.

Martinez said he feels extremely tired and congested. He's coughing a bit and has asked for antihistamines which a doctor from Wellpath, with contracts with the jail, told him wouldn't really work. 

"A lot of us are sleeping," Martinez said. "A lot of us are tired." 

Others are feeling the effects of coronavirus differently. 

Maria Rodriguez of Hayward, said her father, Benito Lopez Rodriguez, 46, was diagnosed with coronavirus on Friday morning. It's unclear if his case has been posted on the sheriff's website. And he's feeling a bit tired, too, but nothing out of the ordinary, according to his daughter. He has been staying in a cell with just one another inmate in Housing Unit 25 B, the kitchen unit.

But other than feeling a little sleepy, Rodriguez said her dad is feeling "perfectly fine. He's always really positive. He has no cough. No nothing." 

Each day, the inmates see a doctor, who checks their temperatures and oxygen levels with a sensor.  Martinez believes that because he has no fever, he is being listed as asymptomatic. An attempt to contact Wellpath was not immediately successful. 

"The doctor keeps telling me my body will heal itself," Martinez said.

But when he told her that he's still not well, he said the doctor marked him as asymptomatic to avoid putting Martinez in quarantine for three more days. 

Martinez, a federal detainee, is being housed with others, all of whom tested positive for coronavirus, in the dorm used for inmate kitchen workers. He has been at Santa Rita since last year, after being charged for allegedly paying to rent an Oakland Raiders suite with a fraudulent $99,000 check. His trial is supposed to start in September. 

While Martinez is in a dorm with the rest of his kitchen unit, many other inmates are being quarantined separately in Housing Unit 8, the former maximum-security area. 

At a court hearing last week, attorney Jeffrey Bornstein said this type of isolation, while necessary, can also prove as a psychological deterrent to those who may not want to admit they have symptoms. 

"It's a disincentive for anyone to be honest because they don't want to be sent to 'the hole,' " he told U.S. Magistrate Nathanel Cousins, and he suggested that quarantining be made not to feel like a punishment but a safety precaution. "What would be helpful for the sheriff, is to make it less punitive to house people, with the doors not locked. These are psychological things, but they are important."

Mike Brady, who represents Sabot Consulting, was hired by Alameda County to oversee how the jail is handling the pandemic. He visited the jail at the end of May and the beginning of June, before the coronavirus outbreak, noting that the sheriff had devised a "thoughtful, well organized and science driven" COVID-19 response plan.

However, Brady noted that the plan is not always followed.

As a result, last week, the county's attorney, Gregory Thomas, said that the jail would be enforcing a rule to make sure all deputies and inmates wear masks when in public gathering spots. 

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