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The Santa Rita Jail in Dublin would get $85 million in additional funds if the Alameda County Board of Supervisors approve a spending bill from Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern on Tuesday.
The large funding increase would boost the Sheriff’s Office budget to more than half a billion dollars a year over the next three years, with the new money going to the jail.
The spending proposal comes just days after more than 400 prisoners were released from Santa Rita in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and prioritize the health and safety of jail staff. Shortly after the release, it was announced that a nurse at the jail had tested positive for COVID-19.
In a telephone interview, Ahern said the request for additional funds is long overdue and has nothing to do with the coronavirus epidemic or the prisoner release.
“It’s unrelated,” Ahern said. “Our staff has been on mandatory overtime for over two years. For years, I’ve been saying that Santa Rita Jail is understaffed and underfunded. We will use the additional funding to provide the proper security and programming for the inmates in our custody.”
The fifth largest jail in the country with a capacity for 4,000 inmates, Santa Rita has been the target of intense criticism from prisoners’ rights organizations and other community groups. For years, the jail’s death rate has been considered abnormally high — exceeding that of the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail — and a large number of the deaths have been ruled suicides.
Jose Bernal, an organizer at the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, called Ahern’s proposal a “money grab” and accused the sheriff of trying to sneak through the funding increase at a time when people are preoccupied with the coronavirus.
“Sheriff Ahern knows that people won’t be able to physically show up to voice their opinion because of the pandemic,” Bernal said. “He might just be able to slip this through.”
Bernal said the additional funds would mean 216 more deputies at the jail, even though its current prisoner population is down to 2,171. He said new funding from the board should be invested in the community during a time of crisis and not in more deputies for a half-empty jail.
While stating that the budget increase is not related to the coronavirus pandemic, Ahern did say that additional funds would create healthier conditions at the jail.
“By having more staff, we can let out fewer inmates onto the yard and for a longer amount of time; that way they can practice social distancing,” he said. “It takes a lot of staff to do this.”
Addressing health concerns about the coronavirus, Ahern said the jail has implemented a more robust cleaning program, adding: “Inmates have been shown a video about the crisis by a medical provider, and some are volunteering to do extra cleanings in the jail.”
Those efforts were acknowledged by one of the inmates released last week.
“They were making an effort, I’ll give them that much,” said Mike, a man in his 40s who asked that his last name not be used because he wants a fresh start without publicity. “They were handing out extra soap, hand wipes.”
Mike had been serving an 80-day sentence at Santa Rita for a probation violation. He learned about the pandemic on TV. He and the 40 other people in his unit had been quarantined for a week and a half leading up to his release.
“They said it was the flu,” he said. “Everybody had to stay in their unit. Deputies and nurses passed everything through a door. Some of the staff were wearing gloves and masks, some weren’t.”
Mike said a couple of people in his unit had flu symptoms, and were tested for the coronavirus, but Mike was never told the results.
“I kept myself clean, kept away from people,” Mike said, “but in jail you don’t have control over what’s happening to you …they’re bringing new people in, you don’t know what they’ve got.”
Mike said he was given a five-minute warning before his release.
“Nothing special happened,” said Mike. “They gave us our belongings and a ride to the BART station. No hand sanitizer, no gloves, no masks, nothing at all.
“They didn’t say it had anything to do with corona,” he said, “but that’s what everyone assumed.”
For Bernal, coronavirus is just shining a light on bigger problems endemic to incarceration.
“The bottom line is that prisons and jails have never been safe. This virus has magnified that by a thousand.”