By Santarosa Garcia
The Fresno County Jail has been devastated by Covid-19 since its first massive outbreak in June 2020.1 As of mid-January, 3,813 inmates at the jail and 171 correctional staff had tested positive for Covid-19.2
The Fresno County Jail has the second highest number of confirmed cases among California county jails trailing only Los Angeles County, which has had 4,091 confirmed cases with seven times the number of inmates.2,8 In jails with a comparable population, the Fresno County Jail has had eight times the number of cases as Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County (425 cases) and more than four times the number of cases at the Sacramento County Jail (811 cases).
In April 2020, the ACLU warned that jails are “vectors of infection” in their local communities and need to substantially reduce the number of people in custody to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. Because of the tremendous rate of incarceration in the United States and the deplorable conditions of U.S. jails and prisons, the ACLU said that jails could play a significant role in rising Covid-19 cases and deaths.
With the pandemic spiraling out of control, the ACLU’s warning appears to have come to pass. Overcrowding and haphazard quarantine protocols have led to the continued spread of the virus in the Fresno County Jail. Since Aug. 25, there have been 2,698 confirmed cases—an increase of 241%.1 Inmates and advocates say that more could and should be done to contain the virus.
For more than a month, a small group of inmates has been trying to reach the media to share concern about how the Sheriff’s Office has been dealing with the pandemic. They are concerned with the jail’s quarantine protocols. Incoming people are not quarantined, thereby unnecessarily exposing inmates to Covid-19 and frequently sending whole sections of the jail into long periods of lockdown.
After being tested for Covid-19, newly incarcerated people are immediately placed into general population pods before receiving their test results. If their tests come back positive, they are moved to a separate quarantine pod and the entire pod in which they were originally placed is locked down. Given that the jail is consistently overcrowded, a large number of inmates are being affected.
When a section of the jail is under quarantine, inmates lose access to most services. Moreover, they are not allowed to go to court, including video appearances.
According to inmates, there is only one nurse working for all three jail facilities who is clearing those in quarantine for court. When inmates are unable to appear in court due to these circumstances, their court date is pushed back weeks, sometimes months.
A majority of persons in county jails are pretrial detainees and have not been convicted of a crime.13 Because of the way the jail is being run during the pandemic and the impact it is having on court appearances, people are serving time beyond what their typical sentence would mandate.
The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right to a public trial without unnecessary delay, the right to a lawyer and the right to an impartial jury. But few cases actually go to trial. The vast majority of convictions in the United States are a result of plea bargains. A staggering 94% of felony convictions at the state level and 97% at the federal level are the result of plea bargains.
Most inmates are pressured into waiving their right to a speedy trial. They are told that it is to their benefit to accept a plea deal in exchange for their admission of guilt and that they risk longer sentences if they do not.
Access to legal counsel is further restricted in quarantined pods. The majority of jail inmates in the United States are represented by public defenders, a system that the American Bar Association has found “lacks fundamental fairness” and for which funding is “shamefully inadequate.”14 Public defenders have consistently complained that they have too many cases and lack the resources and time to provide adequate legal defense.15
The pandemic has made a broken system even worse. Most inmates have not been able to see or speak with their public defender since the first outbreak of Covid-19 in the jail and have been left in the dark about their cases.
Those who are waiting to be transferred to prison also feel that they are serving prolonged sentences. One inmate said that his due process rights are being violated because he is not receiving the time credit that would be granted by the courts if he was already in prison.
Many of those who are eligible for a 50% time reduction already would have been released had they been transferred to state prison, where they were supposed to be. Those incarcerated at a county jail should be receiving the credits they would receive in a state prison.
Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc in the United States, forcing significant changes to mitigate the spread. This includes the closure or reduction of many high-density transmission hubs, such as schools and nonessential businesses.
The Fresno County Jail has not responded in kind, which has led to a continued proliferation of cases. It is not only putting the lives of inmates and jail staff in danger but also the wider community. This has particularly severe consequences in the San Joaquin Valley where ICU bed capacity is currently at 0%.16
The persistent spread of Covid-19 within the jail also has seriously affected release dates. Those who are awaiting sentencing or transfer feel they are serving dead time, or time beyond what they should be serving. It is abundantly clear that what is happening in the Fresno County Jail is the consequence of a punitive criminal justice system, not just the ongoing pandemic.
Santarosa Garcia is an educator and concerned citizen from Fresno. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- E-mail from Tony Botti, spokesperson for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office