Inside the tight confines of Santa Clara County’s jails, where COVID-19 already has a foothold, correctional deputies and inmates alike fear the virus could run rampant and tell NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit insufficient protective measures are placing their health, and potentially their lives, in jeopardy.
“Yes, I’m scared,” one veteran officer told the Investigative Unit. “We’re all scared.”
Three separate officers who work inside the walls of the Main and Elmwood jail facilities told NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit the department's coronavirus response put them and their colleagues at risk.
As of Friday, March 27, six Santa Clara County Sheriff’s deputies have tested positive for COVID-19, five of whom work in the County’s jails, according to the Sheriff’s official count. The Sheriff’s Office also said at least one inmate has tested positive for COVID-19.
Neither officers nor inmates have the luxury of weathering the coronavirus storm from home.
Deputies who spoke to NBC Bay Area asked to have their identities concealed because they feared retaliation. All blasted what they described as minimal social distancing efforts, inadequate sanitation, and late-arriving personal protective equipment, including proper masks.
“If it (COVID-19) gets loose in there, we’re inside of a contained box,” said one officer. “Where are we going?”
While acknowledging the jail environment poses a challenge, the Sheriff’s Office said it has implemented protective measures. Among the steps Sheriff Laurie Smith says she’s ordered: Cancelling some programs for inmates, conducting routine temperature checks, and limiting the number of inmates allowed outside of their cells at one time. In a recently posted social media video, the Sheriff’s Office also showed how jail staff are disinfecting their work stations.
But members of the jail staff who spoke to NBC Bay Area said those efforts occurred too late or don’t go far enough to protect everyone involved.
Despite the cancellation of some programs, such as educational classes, deputies told NBC Bay Area that as of last week, inmates were still allowed to congregate in a confined area outside their cells in groups of up to 60.
“You have 40 to 60 inmates just wandering around,” one officer said. “They’re hanging out, talking, watching TV, using the phones one after the other, just one after the other.”
The deputy said those phones were not being sanitized after each call.
Deputies also described minimal social distancing taking place in some of the housing dorms, where they said inmates sleep in bunk beds spaced just a few feet apart.
Another deputy who spoke to NBC Bay Area echoed his colleague’s thoughts.
“We’ve already had deputies diagnosed with [COVID-19], inmates diagnosed with it, so it’s just going to keep spreading because we’re not taking the precautions necessary,” the deputy told NBC Bay Area. “For a while, we didn’t even have the right wipes to sanitize our work stations. We just got those back. And we didn’t get masks until Monday [March 23] night.”
The officer said he and his colleagues understand they’re doing a job with some inherent risks, but even so, he fears exposing families.
“I know a lot of people are very scared,” he said. “We go home to our kids, our families. We could potentially infect our families.”
The officers who spoke to NBC Bay Area said those incarcerated at the jails are scared, too.
“Of course they’re worried,” one of the officers said. “Where are they going to go? And who’s going to take care of them if we all get sick?”
Family members of those incarcerated in the County’s jails also bemoaned limited access to hygiene products such as soap. Some have called for the Sheriff’s Office to distribute hand sanitizer – normally off-limits because of its alcohol content.
Last week, after the department announced its sixth confirmed COVID-19 case, Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith addressed those deputies’ concerns in an interview with NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit.
“We’ve taken a lot of steps within the jail,” Sheriff Smith said. “We’re always looking for additional things that we can do.”
The Sheriff said her office has made the jails safer by cancelling some inmate programs. Sanitation efforts have been ramped up, the department says, and newly-booked inmates have their temperatures checked. There are also new signs posted at the jail encouraging social distancing, and the Sheriff said County Officials are working to reduce the jails' populations. But on that front, Smith said she's only willing to go so far.
“I don’t want to risk the public,” Sheriff Smith said. “I don’t support any early releases other than those that may be extremely medically fragile.”
As for those N95 masks, the Sheriff conceded there was a delay in obtaining and distributing them to officers. But she said that’s an issue hardly limited to her department.
“Like other agencies and like even health care workers, there was a delay in getting them,” Sheriff Smith said. “And we had some that were out of date that needed to be tested, and they were. But we put in our request very, very early on and got them very early. I wouldn’t say early enough, that is very true.”
It’s currently unclear if there have been any new cases among deputies or inmates this week, or how far the jails have come in reducing their populations. The Sheriff’s office told NBC Bay Area it will provide an update later this week.