Santa Rita Jail creates COVID Compliance Unit; inmate attorneys worry about rising population

FILE ART - Santa Rita Jail in Dublin.

An expert who conducted a spot check at Santa Rita Jail as a result of an ongoing federal lawsuit found that inmates and staff are, for the most part, wearing masks as they should and he noted he was pleased that the Alameda County Sheriff's Office created a "Covid Compliance Unit."

Capt. Dan Brodie is head of that unit, which Mike Brady of Sabot Consulting wrote is a "welcome addition" to the Santa Rita staffing model. Brady said that the "independence and integrity" of this unit is critical to  the jail operating safely and "plays a big role in enforcing the Covid-19 response mandates." 

Brady said he encouraged Brodie to develop an internal audit tool and send his staff out to the jail pods to monitor compliance with safety protocols and conduct unannounced spot checks. Brodie's unit should then report those findings back to the command staff "so they can take immediate corrective action where there are episodic or systemic problems," Brady wrote. 

Brady conducted the visit in late August, one month after he found a myriad of problems, chief among them that 30% of newly incarcerated inmates refuse to take COVID-19 tests, and are then allowed to remain in the same group with inmates whose tests came back negative. 

Brady was hired as part of a 2018 federal class-action lawsuit that originally started out as a case to improve the care of mentally ill inmates, and which has now grown to encompass inmates' health during the coronavirus pandemic. 

However, attorneys who sued the jail, are skeptical.

"The compliance unit is a good thing," said Kara Janssen, an attorney at Rosen, Bien, Galvan and Grunfeld. "But this issue of test refusal has not been remedied. We have continued to receive reports of people who refuse the tests while living in the dorms, which means the virus could spread." 

She added that so far, Alameda County Public Health has not given her law firm, or the public, any data on the numbers of refusals.

"We don't know if this number has gone up or down," she said.  

In court documents, the county explained that inmates who refuse testing during intake quarantine are still quarantined and monitored for the full 14 days before being assigned to a housing unit. After completing intake quarantine, inmates are assigned to a housing unit and pod. Testing is also offered to an entire housing unit after someone tests positive for COVID-19. In that case, the housing unit is offered testing on days seven and 10 of the quarantine. Inmates who refuse testing are again offered testing on two successive days. Symptomatic inmates who refuse testing are treated as presumptively positive and are medically isolated per the jail's COVID-19 Outbreak Control Plan. 

Brady did not address this refusal issue in his latest report.  

And while he noted many positive changes since his last visit, Brady said that the jail kitchen poses to be a problem.

Many inmates are wearing masks that don't have the metal nose guards which can pose a safety issue in jail, but also don't close securely around a person's face, Brady wrote. He also said that staff and inmates are working closely together in tight quarters and social distancing cannot be followed.

"The food prep lines are not designed to accommodate the social distancing that is recommended by the CDC and Public Health," Brady wrote. "Thus, inmates and Aramark staff were shoulder-to-shoulder in an assembly line fashion."

As for the masks,  Brady said that the jail "must find a mask to provide to their employees and to inmate kitchen workers that fit tightly around the nose and that keeps the mask in place, so the mask does not drop down below the nose area. Even if the masks need to be distributed and collected every shift because they have metal in the nose piece, in my expert opinion, properly fitting masks are a critical component of the SRJ Covid-19 prevention/mitigation efforts."

In response, Temitayo Peters, an attorney for the jail, said during a court hearing on Friday that things are going well at Santa Rita.

Only two inmates have coronavirus, and there have been no inmate deaths and two hospitalizations since the beginning of the outbreak in March.

Peters neglected to mention the death of Oscar Rocha, a deputy who worked in the kitchen and died of the virus in July. 

In an interview, Janssen said that while the coronavirus numbers are relatively low, that's also because the jail population is relatively low, even though the numbers are steadily beginning to rise.

At its lowest during coronavirus, Santa Rita's population was 1,700. But as of Monday, the population stands at 1,985. 

"Sure, they are maintaining things right now," she said. "But that's dependant on having enough space. If they run out of space, we will see more outbreaks."

Peters, during the court hearing, assured the magistrate that there is plenty of space at Santa Rita. The jail can hold about 3,500 inmates. 

But Janssen countered in an interview: "They haven't told us what kind of space they have available. They might have a lot of dorms available. But you can't quarantine in the dorms." 

Attorneys for the sheriff as well as for the inmates meet regularly via phone conference before Magistrate Nathanael Cousins. They are trying to collaborate and fix the health issues to avoid a trial, which is now set for Aug. 30, 2021. 

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