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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on February 10th, 2021, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 50 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 50

County Jail battles COVID-19 outbreak that started in an area a recent lawsuit settlement will shut down for good

By MALEA MARTIN

A settlement reached six months ago in Murray v. County of Santa Barbara—a class action lawsuit addressing conditions for inmates at the county jail—is official after the court issued an order granting final approval on Feb. 1. But lawyers on the case say the work to implement the settlement is only just beginning. 


IMPROVING CONDITIONS
The settlement reached in Murray v. County of Santa Barbara in July 2020 is now finalized thanks to a recent court order. Litigators say it may take years to implement the settlement’s remedial plan to improve conditions at the jail, particularly for inmates with disabilities.
FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

Meanwhile, the Santa Barbara County Jail continues to face challenges in keeping COVID-19 outbreaks at bay, despite major reductions in the jail’s population. As of Feb. 5, the Main Jail had 35 infected inmates stemming from an outbreak in the basement dormitory, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Raquel Zick told the Sun via email.

The now-approved settlement lays out a remedial plan that the county must implement to improve conditions at the jail, particularly for inmates with disabilities. 

“The remedial plan will significantly reduce the use of solitary confinement for anybody inside the jail,” said Disability Rights California lawyer Aaron Fischer, who worked extensively on the case. “It will increase out-of-cell time and programming, particularly for people with mental health treatment needs. … For the first time, people with disabilities should expect to have safe and accessible facilities inside the jail. That includes where they sleep, where they shower, where they use the facilities.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the settlement, the jail operated above its intended capacity. This led to “dozens of people sleeping on the floor, people being housed in makeshift housing units, like in the basement rooms that were never meant to house human beings,” Fischer said.

When the pandemic hit, the county made significant efforts to reduce its jail population. If the county remains committed to a reduced population in the long run, it would “significantly reduce the cost of compliance and the timeline for the county to achieve compliance with the remedial plan,” according to Fischer, especially with the new, 376-bed jail facility near Santa Maria that he said is slated to open in June. 

Santa Barbara County Public Defender Adrian Galvan said at a Feb. 4 community dialogue, hosted by Showing Up for Racial Justice Santa Maria, that pandemic-implemented policies like zero bail and reduced jail population are leading to larger conversations about what incarceration could look like after the pandemic.

“There is a lot of talk amongst county stakeholders as to whether or not the Santa Barbara County Jail in Santa Barbara should remain open as a jail, or whether the North County jail should be the only jail in the county,” Galvan said. “So when it comes to litigation that is aimed at health and safety of the folks in the county jail, which Murray is that, we’re hopeful.”

The Feb. 1 court order establishes a team of individuals who will serve as remedial plan experts to advise the court on whether the county is in compliance with the settlement. Their areas of expertise range from mental health and suicide prevention, to disability compliance, to custody operations. The court will have jurisdiction for at least four years to ensure the county complies with the plan, but Fischer said this could be extended if needed. 

“How long it’s going to take and how much it costs, that is very much contingent on what the jail population looks like moving forward,” Fischer said. 

Zick from the Sheriff’s Office said that “since the settlement agreement, the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office has already staffed the Continuous Quality Assurance unit, who will monitor progress of the action items in the settlement. Additionally, we are working towards approval of one additional custody deputy and an administrative office professional, which would then cover both the Main Jail as well as the Northern Branch Jail.”

But whether the Sheriff’s Office will commit to keeping the jail population low after the pandemic passes is not yet clear. As the Sun reported on Jan. 6, the Sheriff has pointed to lower jail populations as a reason for an increase in reported crimes in Santa Barbara County, which were trending higher at the end of 2020 as compared with previous years.

At the time of the Sun’s Jan. 6 reporting, Zick said a “significant number” of those arrested for crimes and released on pandemic-implemented zero-bail policies had been caught reoffending, though she didn’t say how many. 

Fischer believes it’s too early to understand the impacts of a reduced jail population or zero-bail policies on public safety. But what is known, Fischer argued, is that overcrowded jails impact not just those incarcerated, but also those who staff the jails and the surrounding community.

“When you have these congregate setting facilities and a pandemic hits, it puts enormous pressure on the public health system, on ICU capacity,” he said.

The facility is currently dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak that started in the jail’s basement dormitory. According to the Sheriff’s Office, several inmates reported symptoms on Feb. 2, which prompted the jail to test inmates in two separate housing units. Twenty-six turned up positive in the first round of testing, and as of Feb. 5, Zick said 35 total are infected.

“We are working closely with Public Health and our Wellpath team to determine the source of this outbreak,” she said. 

Zick said infected inmates are “housed in either negative airflow (negative pressure) cells or are housed in cohorts with other COVID-positive inmates in a separate area of the facility from the rest of the jail population.”

Fischer said the basement dorms where the outbreak started, under the settlement agreement, were “supposed to be shut down Jan. 1, 2021.” Zick said the Sheriff’s Office would close this housing unit “when it is safe to do so.”

“The basement housing area was closed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and reopened shortly after the pandemic began, to allow for greater social distancing,” she said.

“We aren’t running to court because we’re trying to give them some flexibility because of the pandemic,” Fischer said of the basement dorms remaining in use. “But we have told them for a long time those units are tinderboxes for harm and for infectious disease spread. So I was very saddened, but not shocked, to see that that is where the outbreak happened.”

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at mmartin@santamariasun.com.










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