By Claudia Boyd-Barrett, California Health Care Foundation, April 24, 2020
Many county correctional facilities throughout California are reducing their teeming populations to prevent large-scale COVID-19 outbreaks. The dorm rooms, dining halls, and recreation areas in many of these institutions are breeding grounds for spreading the virus, experts say.
People have been complaining for weeks that inmates don’t have hand sanitizer or equipment like masks to protect themselves and that cramped quarters make it impossible to practice social distancing, said Sonja Tonnesen-Casalegno of Root & Rebound, which runs a legal advice hotline for people incarcerated in California. An uncontrolled outbreak among jail populations would be impossible to contain within jailhouse walls. Correctional staff and other workers constantly enter and exit these facilities, and it is not hard to imagine the coronavirus being spread by them to surrounding communities.
A number of California’s 58 independent county jail systems have responded to the pandemic by releasing inmates. San Francisco has reduced its jail census by close to 40% this year. The reduced population allows the jail to keep detainees six feet apart, separate them into groups of eight to minimize infection risks, and quarantine new arrivals for 14 days, officials said. People over age 60 are housed in single cells. At least 12 other counties, including Los Angeles, Monterey, Santa Clara, and Tulare, have slashed their jailhouse populations by at least 20%, and Marin County reportedly cut its census by almost half, according to the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, which tracks county jail populations nationwide.