Spot check of Santa Rita Jail shows clean facility, but also reveals myriad of COVID-19 problems

A recent spot check of Santa Rita Jail by an independent consultant revealed that the facility is clean and inmates have adequate soap, sanitizer and coronavirus education materials.

But the 13-page July 7 assessment written by Mike Brady of Sabot Consulting also reveals a myriad of other problems at the jail, including the fact 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.  

"I have serious concerns about allowing the refusals to remain in the same cohort as the negatives," Brady wrote in his report. "What science and experience has taught us is that a high percentage of individuals are asymptomatic positives in the general public and as a result can become super-spreaders of the virus... In a correctional setting, this is especially dangerous because of the close quarters in which they live. As a result, it is my expert opinion that allowing the inmate test-refusers to remain in the same cohort with the confirmed negatives may create a higher risk of inadvertently introducing the virus into the general population putting the vulnerable inmate housing units at an unreasonable risk of serious illness or death." 

Brady recommended that the test-refusers be removed and housed separately from the rest of the group and considered "presumptive positives." He noted that Monterey County Jail has made taking the nasopharyngeal test mandatory, and they have less than a 1% percent refusal rate.

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. His report was posted on the sheriff's website on Monday. 

Sgt. Ray Kelly, a spokesman for the jail, said that deputies cannot force people to take pregnancy tests, medication or undergo medical procedures.

"So every person has free will to refuse," he said. "We will not get in a use of force over a COVID test. That would be unlawful and not in the best interest of anyone. So we try to gain compliance and educate."

Kelly explained that everyone at Santa Rita Jail gets quarantined for two weeks "no matter what."

The virus won't live for more than 14 days, so after this time period, no one should be positive, he said.

If someone develops symptoms, "we move and test you," Kelly said. "If you still refuse the test, we treat you as positive or symptomatic. What we can do is work smart using our outbreak control and management plan." 

Santa Rita had a coronavirus outbreak in mid-July, when at its peak, 106 inmates tested positive for coronavirus. Last month, two employees died of the virus. As of Monday, the positive coronavirus cases had dropped to 17. 

Many inmates are deemed free of the virus when they report that they are not feeling symptoms after 10 days. According to new CDC guidelines, this method is now OK, though Brady said he believes it would be more scientific to actually test inmates again instead of just asking them how they are feeling. 

Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at Berkeley Public Health, previously told KTVU that the jail's protocol under the new CDC guidelines is reasonable. Essentially, if someone doesn't present with fever and coronavirus symptoms for 10 days, that person may still indeed have the virus in their body but the contagious part is gone. 

Paul Mello, an attorney for the county, said at a court hearing last week that the jail will defer to what scientists and doctors from public health departments have to say regarding the virus, and not the opinions of an independent jail consultant, who does not have a medical degree.  

Lawyers for the jail and Alameda County regularly meet with the plaintiff's lawyers, Jeffrey Bornstein and Kara Janssen, before U.S. District Magistrate Nathanael Cousins. After most hearings, status updates and reports on changes the jail is making are due in the hopes of finding compromises and avoiding a trial. 

 Here is a list of what else Brady found during his spot check: 

Commendable practices: 

  • All the staff in the intake room where inmates are booked and screened were wearing protective gear. A screening tent had been set up for new inmates. "I am satisfied that the Covid19 screening and booking process meets the CDC guidelines and best practices for Covid19 screening in a correctional setting," Brady wrote. 
  • Brady said he found the mask compliance by badge and non-badge staff to be "excellent." He said the same about the distribution of soap, masks, hand sanitizers, and educational materials. He found the entire jail to be very clean. 
  • Brady noted that the coronavirus educational materials were geared toward those in 5th grade to ensure that intellectually disabled and learning-disabled inmates could understand how to protect themselves from getting the virus. He did say, however, it is critical for deputies to verbally educate these inmates because many also have short-term memory problems. 
  • Command staff has assigned more deputies to ensure that inmates who were medically cleared to do so, received the same out of cell time that their respective security level received.
  • The sheriff's office outlined the specific criteria for kitchen staff and Aramark contractors for mask compliance, making it clear that anyone who doesn't follow the order will be disciplined.

Problematic COVID-19 practices: 

  • About 30% of the newly incarcerated inmates refuse nasopharyngeal tests. These inmates are allowed to remain in the same group with those inmates whose tests came back negative. 
  • Santa Rita Jail shows evidence of the space limitations, despite assertions from jail and county officials that there is plenty of room at the facility. 
  • Because of these space issues, Brady said that newly booked medically isolated inmates who qualified as vulnerable inmates were put into the Orange Ad Seg housing unit for overflow. "This practice presents a high risk of infecting the general population inmates with Covid19 and must end," Brady wrote.
  • A dormitory-style living unit was being used as a medical isolation unit, which Brady said should "never" occur because there are no solid walls and inmates cluster together in these settings.
  • Brady found that not all inmates are mask-compliant while inside the dormitory. "In this setting, there is no hope of mitigating the spread of respiratory droplets to the other inmates especially from asymptomatic tests refusers who may be positive. Moreover, there is a real danger that in an open-air setting like a dormitory, the virus could be spread to an adjacent dormitory easily. "
  • The common areas and high-touch surfaces were not being cleaned in between each use in the women’s orange unit. 
  • Because of the mandatory overtime program, the jail does not have a consistent deputy assigned to many housing units.

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