Santa Cruz County Jail
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID 2021

No inmates test positive for COVID-19 after officer outbreak, sheriff’s office says

The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office has received negative COVID-19 test results for all of its 300-plus inmates, a spokesperson said Thursday. But public defenders and inmate advocates say their faith in jail safety is still shaken.

All Santa Cruz County jail inmates tested negative for COVID-19 this week after an outbreak of the virus among correctional officers, the sheriff’s office said Thursday afternoon.

The results meant that an outbreak that sidelined 17 correctional officers earlier in the week hadn’t spread to the county’s incarcerated population — about 324 people across three facilities.

County health officials are still investigating whether a “large gathering” early last week was the source of the outbreak among the officers, most of whom worked in the main jail.

Officials had previously said that most of the officers worked night shifts, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and had limited contact with inmates, but all staff and inmates were tested this week as a precaution.

The sheriff’s office is still waiting on results for “a handful” of correctional officers, but should have them by Friday, spokesperson Ashley Keehn told Lookout. “So far no additional cases or symptomatic” officers, she said in an email.

Even though no detainees have tested positive as a result of the correctional officers’ outbreak, public defenders and advocates for those behind bars are frustrated by how the development has complicated their work.

Attorneys who have been representing clients from a makeshift courtroom at the main jail — which is live-streamed to the main courthouse — are now skittish about stepping into the facility and risking exposure to COVID-19, said Michelle Lipperd of the county public defender’s office, which represents clients who cannot afford criminal defense attorneys.

During the pandemic, public defenders have been “limping along,” using at-times-cumbersome videoconferencing to limit in-person interactions and keep the courts moving. When attorneys did see their clients face-to-face, at the jail or in the courtroom, it was after clients had completed a 14-day isolation period required by jail facilities in order to weed out COVID-19.

“So we’re assuming if they had it, they’re no longer contagious because they’ve been in isolation,” Lipperd said.

The outbreak, however, has shaken inmates’ and attorneys’ confidence that the jail will remain safe, Lipperd said. The same goes for advocates who, pre-pandemic, worked face-to-face with incarcerated people.

Families that had been trying for months to keep track of loved ones in jail despite already-tight restrictions are struggling, said Nane Alejandrez, executive director of Barrios Unidos, an organization that provides support services to people in jails and prisons.

Alejandrez said outbreaks at large correctional institutions in other parts of California should serve as a warning for Santa Cruz County — even if the county dodged a bullet with the correctional officers’ outbreak.

“If it happens at the prisons, it can happen at the jails … things spread very quickly,” he said, noting that in Santa Cruz County’s main jail, “you’re confined to a very small area, you don’t get to go outside — there’s no yard.”

Sheriff’s office officials are responding to the criticism and concerns by pointing to the fact that the correctional officer outbreak has been contained.

“We have had many systems and processes in place since March to keep this virus out of our incarcerated population and we have successfully done that,” Keehn said.

Among the jail facilities’ COVID-19 policies was the 14-day isolation period and testing, plus restrictions on in-person visitation, as well as routine cleaning, masking and hygiene protocols.

Much about the “large gathering” that might be linked to the correctional officers’ outbreak remained unclear Thursday, including to what extent it might have violated California COVID-19 restrictions in effect in purple-tier Santa Cruz County. All indoor social gatherings with people from outside of one’s own household are prohibited. Gatherings of up to three households, including the hosts, are permitted outdoors.

If the officers violated COVID-19 protocols or departmental policy, Sheriff Jim Hart would be in charge of taking disciplinary action against them. Attempts to reach the union that represents the officers have been unsuccessful.