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Conditions At San Diego County Jails Frighten Inmates

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Inmates in San Diego County's seven jails face conditions they say are filthy and that make them especially vulnerable to COVID-19

Speaker 1: 00:00 Those confined in close quarters like Navy ships and nursing homes that are especially vulnerable to an outbreak of COBIT 19. And that's certainly true in County jails. The San Diego County Sheriff's office says it's responding with face masks for guards and inmates. Broad testing, prompt medical attention and hygiene kits for prisoners. But County inmates tell a different story. Joining me is freelance journalists. Kelly Davis who story with watchdog reporter Jeff McDonald appeared on Sunday in the San Diego union Tribune. Kelly, welcome to midday.

Speaker 2: 00:32 Hi. Thank you.

Speaker 1: 00:33 Well, India reporting on coven 19, inside the County jails, you found wildly divergent stories. Tell us first about the jail system. How many jails, how many inmates? What are they generally in there for?

Speaker 2: 00:45 Yeah, so the, the San Diego County jail system, there's, there's seven jails and they normally hold about 5,300 5,400 inmates. And, uh, of that population, um, about two thirds. Um, you know, it changes every now and then. About two thirds of them haven't been sentenced, so they're, they're awaiting trial waiting to go through the, the court process. Um, but, but you also have people who are in on probation violations. You have these, uh, they call them book and released inmates, uh, who might be just spending a night in jail. You know, these are usually homeless folks, people who are arrested for being drunk in public. So, um, yeah, so a whole range.

Speaker 1: 01:26 And the department says five employees, three inmates tested positive so far. Uh, what adjustments is the department made to find and limit exposure?

Speaker 2: 01:35 They're, they're trying to release people that they feel they could safely release so that you don't have, you know, multiple people in a cell or, or 50 or 60 guys in kind of a open, uh, dorm style space,

Speaker 1: 01:49 an increase in testing or isolation since the, uh, positive, uh, test came back.

Speaker 2: 01:55 Right now they tell us there are about 47 inmates who are in quarantine. I'm kind of a precautionary measure. Um, they've set aside 228 beds for anyone who needs to be isolated. Um, and yeah, like as you mentioned, five, five guards have tested positive. And so for, uh, deputies, uh, who work in the jails, uh, before they start their shift, it'll get their, their temperature checked each day. And, um, yeah, as I mentioned, they're, they're wearing masks and gloves as they do their work.

Speaker 1: 02:29 Now, what have you discovered about conditions in the jails from inmates and their families? And talk about the basics. You mentioned masked soap and water.

Speaker 2: 02:38 Yeah, we have Jeff McDonna and I have just been inundated with, with phone calls, emails, letters from inmates and from their family members. And there's a lot of concern. Um, the jail took a while to get the masks distributed. Uh, one inmate told me that they were promised the masks would be cleaned every, every, twice a week, but he, he told me they haven't. Um, so the inmates have taken to cleaning the masks themselves. Um, that SIM same inmate told me that he's been using his commissary money to buy, um, dial antibacterial soap, which he passes out to other folks in his module. Um, sicker inmates are being cared for by the inmates who are, you know, able bodied. But there's concern that some of those sicker inmates could have over 19 and they're just not being tested. Uh, there's a lot of concern over cleanliness and how well the, the modules and the cells are being sanitized. There's just a lot of, um, it almost verges on panic, especially, you know, we're hearing from, um, you know, wives of, of, uh, old or inmates who have a long list of, of health issues and they're really worried that they're, um, you know, their husband or their Risa and, or their, their nephews health is compromised and they're kind of, you know, as we say in the story, just, um, sitting ducks for catching Corona virus.

Speaker 1: 04:19 And what does the Sheriff's department say about these complaints?

Speaker 2: 04:23 They, they insist that they're there, you know, they're doing the best they can in a kind of, um, unexpected, unprecedented situation. Um, you know, and, and, and they say that they're all inmates who exhibit flu, like symptoms are, are directed to go see the nurse. Um, they're placed in isolation. If, if those symptoms seem to be coven 19 related as far as testing goes, a medical provider, a physician will have to be the one that recommends that someone gets tested. And, uh, I think a lot of inmates, they're saying that even if someone's so symptoms, they're not necessarily being allowed to go to the infirmary and they're not necessarily, um, being able to get tested. You know, I talked to one inmate and as we were talking, he says, there's a guy over here on the floor and he's just coughing and coughing and coughing and, and no one's doing anything about it.

Speaker 1: 05:26 Do they hope testing? I mean, testing has been a problem here across the state, across the nation. They hope testing will, uh, will improve as more tests are become available.

Speaker 2: 05:36 I, I guess. Yeah. You know, and initially they said they were only testing people who had a preexisting conditions and, and, uh, they were being very kind of careful with, with testing. Um, now they've expanded. They say they've expanded it to anyone who shows symptoms. Uh, but so far, only about, uh, five dozen, about a little over 60, uh, inmates have been tested according to the numbers that they've provided us, which seems low given, um, you know, a jail population about 4,300 and you still have dozens of people coming in and, and going out and, and cycling through each day. So, um, I think, yeah, like I said, 68 tests that seems kind of low for a, uh, congregate living facility where you've got people constantly coming and going

Speaker 1: 06:32 and some, uh, families that inmates pictured in your story. I told you something happened after it was published. A, what did they say?

Speaker 2: 06:39 Yeah, so you could do a, uh, a video visit with, with inmates. Families are able to do that. And so multiple people, um, as they were doing, uh, the video visit with their loved one, uh, inmates would, would come in with signs and hold up signs. And so the, the, the person, the family member doing the video visit would take a photo. And so we've got in the story, I think three or four photos of inmates holding up signs saying, you know, we don't deserve to die. You know, just kind of expressing concern, you know, kinda holding up signs, expressing their concern. And we heard from, from multiple people that, um, the inmates holding up those signs were placed in solitary confinement as punishment. We have not confirmed that with the Sheriff's department, but like I said, multiple unrelated people have told us that those inmates were, were put in isolation as punishment.

Speaker 1: 07:38 Well, we'll look forward to a follow up here and see what happens going forward with, with the conditions in the jail. I've been speaking with freelance journalist Kelly Davis, who story with watchdog reporter Jeff McDonald appeared in the union Tribune on Sunday. Kelly, thanks very much. Thank you.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.