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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on April 15th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 7 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 21, Issue 7

While Lompoc's prison deals with the county's worst COVID-19 outbreak, the county jail remains relatively unscathed, but some warn it may be next


Between the Santa Barbara County Jail and the Lompoc federal prison, starkly different situations are unfolding. While the Lompoc prison suffers from the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the county—67 inmates and 24 staff members tested positive as of April 14—the county jail had no confirmed inmate cases as of April 10. 

One preventative measure the county jail is taking to curb a potential COVID-19 spread is by making full-face shields for deputies to wear while on duty. Here, an inmate involved with the jail’s “Success Stories” program helps make face shields.

But according to Aaron Fischer of Disability Rights California, the jail’s chance to avoid the same fate as its neighboring prison is fleeting.

“Something needs to be done now to address these high risks for people,” Fischer told the Sun. “You can’t wait until you’re at the height of the curve to address the risk. That window is really closing for the county.”

Fischer is part of a team of litigators who filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Santa Barbara County Jail inmates in December 2017. Murray v. County of Santa Barbara “looked at issues around mental health treatment, access to medical care, the very harsh conditions of solitary confinement, suicide prevention, and disability access and discrimination issues,” Fischer said. 

Over the last two years, Fischer said the sheriff and the county have worked with his team to try to reach a resolution to the case, including bringing five independent experts inside the jail to assess its conditions. But Fischer said that the pandemic now presents a more severe and imminent threat to those incarcerated.

“What’s particularly concerning is that the experts’ primary area of concern was the designated health care units,” Fischer said. “Now that we’re here with COVID-19, we feel strongly that something needs to be done.” 

So far, the county has taken a number of measures to reduce the jail’s population size. Sheriff Bill Brown expanded an early release program that was already in place before the pandemic. As of April 8, the jail had 678 inmates, the lowest number in decades, according to the jail’s public information officer, Raquel Zick.

Zick told the Sun that the jail is currently placing any inmate who exhibits symptoms into a 14-cell unit with negative air pressure technology. This ensures that contagions do not escape when the cell’s door is opened. 

But according to an expert who conducted a jail site visit between Aug. 13 and 15, 2019, as part of the Murray case, “staff on tour stated he did not understand the operation of the pressure monitoring gauges to know when negative pressure is occurring.”

Zick told the Sun that the jail tests the negative pressure functionality daily, and that operational knowledge is “not an issue.”

But if the virus gets into the jail, Fischer said 14 negative airflow cells will not be enough, even with all units properly operational. Furthermore, Fischer said that these one-to-a-cell units essentially place symptomatic inmates into solitary confinement. 

“People inside the jail are being isolated from others to prevent transmission. That’s a good thing,” Fischer said. “But it’s not a good thing that the only way to achieve that in a jail setting is through imposition of solitary confinement.”

A 2019 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that “compared with individuals who were incarcerated and not placed in restrictive housing,” those who spent any time in restrictive housing—including solitary confinement—were 78 percent more likely to die from suicide within a year of their release.

Prison reform lawyer Charles Carbone told the Sun that solitary confinement has been traditionally designed to maximize sensory deprivation and for that reason is used as a punishment. But if inmates are confined for non-punitive reasons—say, to stop the spread of an outbreak—correctional facilities must ensure that these inmates are treated the same as those in non-restrictive housing, he said.

“This is where the jails and prisons are going to have to kind of retool themselves,” Carbone said. “If they’re sticking people in administrative segregation on medical reasons, they cannot deprive them any further than they would an ordinary inmate.”

In the case of county jails, Carbone said the protocols for isolating inmates are decided on an ad hoc, county-by-county basis. This puts the sheriff’s office and the county jail in a position to ensure that sick inmates aren’t punished for simply being sick. 

Medically confined or not, all inmates are seeing changes in their usual liberties as a result of COVID-19. Carbone said that rehabilitative programs, which can lead to early release, are particularly in peril when a jail shuts down outside visitation, as the county jail has been forced to do. Deidre Smith, the county jail’s inmate services manager, said she is committed to “keep programs moving forward.”

“I’m working with Santa Barbara City College to get courses that can continue via technology either over speaker phone or via Zoom. There’s lots of ways we’re moving inmates toward that prospect of being released early by earning milestone credits,” Smith told the Sun. “We’re continuing as best we can.”

The jail has also upped free telephone minutes, free postcards to stay connected with friends and family, and the availability of their educational tablet program for inmates. The challenge is ensuring that these increased and changing liberties are reaching all inmates equally. 

From Fischer’s perspective, the best solution isn’t just more rights inside the jail, it’s letting more people out.

“The jail historically has been a very overcrowded place … and those crowded settings still exist inside the jail,” Fischer said. “It’s dangerous for people inside the housing units, and it’s dangerous for the community.”

Fischer said that while the sheriff has quite a bit of authority to reduce crowding in the jail, the courts are “reluctant to do adjustments to bail or other things that might allow for release without the DA [district attorney] stipulating.” 

As of April 6, Fischer was not aware of the district attorney stipulating on any cases so far. But in a conversation later that day with the Sun, District Attorney Joyce Dudley said that on a case-by-case basis, she would be “happy to give [her] opinion as to whether someone’s bail, once they’re arrested for a crime, should be raised or lowered.” She said that the “case-by-case basis” largely depends on the nature of the crime, how dangerous the individual would be to the public if released, and the likelihood of recidivism. 

“I hope her calculation of what public safety means right now is being recalibrated,” Fischer said. “But again, the sheriff could take steps right now to protect, I would say, dozens of people who are at high risk for serious illness and would likely be a very low risk to public safety if released.”

Included in those at risk are not just inmates, but also county jail staff. Zick said that as of April 8, six Sheriff’s Office employees had tested positive for the virus.

“Everything I’m hearing indicates that the staff at the jail are working extremely hard and professionally to protect themselves and the people in custody,” Fischer emphasized. “I’m concerned for them just like I am for my clients.” 

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at

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