More inmates test positive for COVID-19 at Santa Rita jail; advocates call for releases

File: Santa Rita Jail

Advocates for inmates at Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail urged officials to empty the jail Thursday as the number of people infected with COVID-19 increased to 12.

But officials with the sheriff’s office and county prosecutors said they’ve already significantly reduced the inmate population in the jail, and releasing everyone would put the community at risk.

Inmate advocates from dozens of Bay Area criminal justice reform groups calling themselves Santa Rita Jail Solidarity sent a letter to county officials urging them to stop incarcerating people at the jail and to begin releasing all the inmates there.

“People have to see this as an emergency,” said Anne Weils, a member of the San Francisco chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. “These men and women have to be released as soon as possible in whatever way we can.”

Alameda County Public Defender Brendon Woods also urged officials to take aggressive measures to thin out the jail.

He wrote a letter to District Attorney Nancy O’Malley asking her to release the 115 inmates who have six months or less remaining on their sentences.

“We’ve been sounding the alarm for more than three weeks, and now we’re on the verge of the virus sweeping through the jail,” Woods said in a statement. “I don’t think prosecutors have gotten the message about how serious this is. They’re moving far too slowly and now people in custody are getting sick.”

The sheriff’s office first reported one inmate had tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week. By Thursday, the number had increased to 12.

In an interview with KTVU on Thursday, Sgt. Ray Kelly said the sheriff’s office has been citing and releasing people who previously did not qualify for release before the virus was detected in the jail. The effort has led to the release of some 700 inmates. The jail population has dropped roughly 25% since the mandatory shelter-in-place order went into effect last month. 

On Thursday morning, there were just under 2,000 inmates in the jail.

Many of the people who remain behind bars pose dangers to the community, Kelly said. Some are accused of murder or are alleged sexual predators.

“There’s about 1,300 individuals in our jail who will not qualify for any type of release,” Kelly said. “Those individuals are in here for serious crimes.”

On Wednesday, a judge loosened the standard for release for at least one inmate. Derick Almena, the defendant in the high-profile Ghost Ship warehouse fire that killed 36 partygoers in December 2016, may be released as soon as Friday.

A Superior Court judge said he will put Almena on ankle monitoring due to the threat of coronavirus in the jail.

Almena has a teleconference on Friday to finalize the order.

The district attorney’s office said it “strongly disagreed” with the decision to release Almena, whose re-trial for the Ghost Ship fire tragedy has yet to start.

Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky